February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: 8-bit

Self-Destructing in 8 Bits

A lofi implosion by Michigan's Luminous Fridge

The great thing about great 8bit music is how it sounds as if it’s about to fall to pieces. The first half of “Phantom Spikes The Punch” by Michigan-based Luminous Fridge sounds like three different video games vying for your attention in a dusty old arcade. There’s white noise from a dying speaker cabinet, the blippy melody of a nocturnal adventure, and the heavy beats of a first-person shooter. Together, they form an abstract sort of pop song, one barely holding onto its own self-containment. And then, as if with the flip of a switch, near the 45-second mark, everything shifts. The music gets markedly more contemporary, the beats and tune gathering themselves with a sense of lounge-ready decorum — less Pacman, more Amom Tobin.

Track originally posted for free download at soundcloud.com/luminousfridge. More from Fridge at luminousfridge.bandcamp.com.

[ Also tagged / / Leave a comment ]

Everyday 8-bit (MP3)

Old-school charm from Alveola Ämting of Härnösand, Sweden

The 8-bit charm of “Kvinnodan” by Alveola Ämting benefits from the sounds out of which it is constructed registering as household objects as much as they do as old-school side-scrolling fun and games. It isn’t just the gee-whillikers buzz of arcade activity, but also alarm-clock beeps and desk-bell rings. There isn’t a lot in the manner of development as it proceeds along its five-minute course, except that the beeping gets a little glitchy at times, its internal structure becoming slowly apparent as the beep is granulated into a series of component parts.

Alveola is based in Härnösand, Sweden. Track originally posted for free download at soundcloud.com/alveola. Track found via a repost by soundcloud.com/super-miracle-dream-team.

[ Also tagged / / Comments: 3 ]

Kind of Bloop: The Politics of Pixelizing

Why does altering a photograph differ from altering a song? Or does it?

The discussion that followed my recent post about the Kind of Bloop/Kind of Blue legal melee involved some questions, each politely put if strongly felt (exactly the sort of comments appreciated at this website), about why exactly it was that altering Miles Davis’ music seemed more egregious to some parties than did the alteration of Jay Maisel’s cover photograph. That is, why the holder of the copyright for Davis’ music deserved repayment, while perhaps the holder of the copyright for the photograph did not. I am, it feels at times, among those parties.

For background: Kind of Bloop is a remake of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album, with the original five jazz songs redone as “chiptune” music — that is, as music that sounds like it might emanate from a video arcade circa 1984. To complete the package, the original album’s cover art was processed to transform it to the blocky style called “pixel art.” The remake album was released in 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the original album’s release. In September 2010 Andy Baio, the creator of the Bloop project, agreed in an out-of-court settlement to pay $32,500 in fines to the photographer, the famed Jay Maisel, who had shot the iconic cover of the Blue album. Only in late June of this year did Baio go public with his legal entanglement.

At the risk of sounding like President Obama discussing gay marriage, I realized in the process of responding to these questions that my opinion on the subject of copyright regarding portrait photos versus music is still developing. Please understand that the logic I lay out below is at best exploratory. Partially it is exploring the issues at hand, and partially it is exploring my thoughts and thought process on the subject.

Though copyright protection has been repeatedly extended, it feels still like 50 years is a good long period of time to profit from anything before it becomes part of common vernacular, visual or otherwise. (And yes, feel free to ask me again when I am 75 and someone decides to make use of something I made when I was 25.)

No offense intended to photography, but framing a photo of a man as charismatic as Miles Davis seems like a far different proposition than composing original tunes such as those on Kind of Blue.

The musical notes in those pieces of music are Davis’ own, while the visual source material in Maisel’s photo is not his own.

Of course, this cuts both ways, which is where my still-developing status on the subject (aka wavering) comes in. (Wavering is when one considers flip-flopping to be a cognitive process.)

If you spend a lot of time listening to Kind of Blue, as with any music, great or not, you begin hear to the influences of others, some pronounced, some deeply seeded and coded. Rarely if ever are those influences repaid directly and financially for their effort.

One might say, by way of comparison, the subjects of photos by Jay Maisel and Annie Liebovitz do not profit financially from the ongoing sales of those works.

To acknowledge the way that prior work, that source material, figures in the development of music we habitually call “original” is to draw a comparison, rough as it may be, between the source of those melodies, and the subject in a photograph.

It is also to consider the process of creative sublimation that is required by a musician to make the source material his or her own, versus the lesser burden on a portrait photographer to make the subject his or her own.

It is this very matter that is at the heart of remix debates following the birth of hip-hop. Hip-hop absorbs its influences in a more literal, fixed manner than did most of the music that preceded it, and it has literally paid the price for this, with the systematized legal process that was developed for clearing samples.

I’ve argued here that there may be a case to be made that portrait photography may not necessarily deserve the same degree of protection as musical composition. I’d also say that sound in general tends to play second fiddle, as it were, to visual images in culture, and that is because images are indelible in our minds in a way that music is not. And yet we protect certain visual images in different ways than we do others. Logos, graphic design elements, typography, photography, architecture: these are all handled differently by the courts.

And if we handle different visual elements differently, it’s not clear why we should necessarily correlate a musical composition and a portrait photograph — in particular a portrait photograph whose primary role was as a piece of commercial packaging.

In the end (to the extent there is an end, since as I said up above, I am still pondering the subject), I have no firsthand knowledge of why Andy Baio, the creator of the Kind of Bloop project, understood the need to pay the publishers of the music, and yet did not explore paying the photographer who shot the cover image. But I do have some sense of the disparity.

And the way it has all played out seems to be less a critique of Baio’s thinking process, and more a critique of just how broken our copyright system is, and of the financial threat that hovers over individuals who wish to take the culture around them and make something of it. As I’ve said before: the laws as they’re currently enforced protect the interests of companies (and individuals) who actively territorialize our memories and then charge us to access them.

(Animated GIF image of the American flag found on Tom Moody’s tommoody.us website, where he writes frequently on electronic music, pixel-intensive art, and copyright.)

[ Also tagged , / / Comments: 11 ]

Kind of Bloop/Blue: Some Say, “Freeloader.” Others Say, “So What?”

Arguably no modern musical form until hip-hop was as unabashedly appropriative as jazz.

This is one of the two great ironies of the recent brouhaha that erupted over reputed copyright infringement in regard to the cover of the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. The album was released in the summer of 1959, and its cover was shot by legendary photographer Jay Maisel. The image, which shows a close crop of Davis playing trumpet, was given the retro block-pixel treatment a half century later, in 2009, as part of the compilation album Kind of Bloop. Kind of Bloop is a chiptune project organized by Andy Baio that took each of the five songs on Kind of Blue and rendered them in the low-processing-power manner of early video games. The tracks were each recreated by a different musician: “So What” by Ast0r, “Freddie Freeloader” by Virt, “Blue in Green” by Sergeeo, “All Blues” by Shnabubula, and “Flamenco Sketches” by Disasterpeace. If Pac-Man had gobbled its dots in the streets around the Five Spot, Kind of Bloop is what it would have sounded like.

And last September, Maisel got $32,500 from Baio in an out-of-court settlement as a result of the usage. The reason this is news now is because on June 23, Baio went public with the legal situation, writing on his blog, waxy.org, in a post titled “Kind of Screwed,” that he’d only recently gotten past what he described as the “nerve-wracking” nature of the entanglement and found himself able to write about it. (Baio defended himself with support from the EFF.)

The images up top show, from left to right: the original cover with Maisel’s photo, the cover of Kind of Bloop, and an Nth-generation pixelation that Baio made when trying to discuss the intersection of law and art. The intention of the exaggerated pixelation in this third image is to ask when, exactly, would a derived image be considered “transformative,” which, like “parody,” is protected under the law.

The Internet likes a good feud, and an underdog. Toss in matters of copyright, and inevitably the thing became a tempest, not just in comments and on social networks, but also at Maisel’s Manhattan home, which was, according to gothamist.com, plastered with blown-up pictures of the Kind of Bloop cover.

When Kind of Bloop was first released, I made make note of the cover, because at least one depiction of it looked more like Louis Armstrong than it did like Miles Davis (I also noted a period-style parallel to a contemporaneous Timbaland project). I noted an instance in which a participant in Bloop, Sam Ascher-Weiss, who records as Shnabubula, felt that Time magazine, in an interview, had egregiously misquoted him. And in May 2009, when the project was first announced, I linked to the initial fundraising effort: Kind of Bloop was one of the first pay-before-it’s-made albums on Kickstarter, where Baio was the CTO, or Chief Technology Officer.

There are perfectly good reasons for Maisel to have pursued his legal rights, if only because — to my knowledge — failure to defend a copyright can be used in the future as evidence of disregard for that specific copyright. To those who attack Maisel, I would say the following: If you agree that copyright is screwed up, as I do, and as I believe Baio does, you can’t entirely (key word: entirely) blame someone for trying to work within that system to the best of their ability.

That said, the original claim from Maisel’s attorneys seems absurdly high, as does the final settlement — patently so, you might say. (Baio: they were seeking at one point “damages up to $150,000 for each infringement at the jury’s discretion.”) Baio secured rights to use Davis’ music; the photo is not evidence of willful copyright infringement. And I agree with Baio’s take, which he elaborates on clearly at waxy.org: Current copyright law puts fear in the minds of anyone who wants to transform existing work. That, plain and simple, is messed up.

If you allow that more than finances must be at stake for the stakes to seem so high, then where does the litigious overkill originate? It’s an attempt at control over one’s work that often smacks of desperation. It’s quite possible that excessive defense of copyright protection and demands for its extension reflect a mistaken hunger for immortality. And it’s worth considering how many of the “immortal” artists, or at least the ones who died long ago yet whose work continues to have cultural importance, are individuals about whom we in fact know nothing little to nothing, people like Johann Sebastian Bach and William Shakespeare. They are not immortal. Their work may yet prove to be.

The loudest voices in this haven’t been the plaintiff or the accused. It’s the red-in-the-face peanut gallery arguing over it online. And it’s likely that the majority (key word: majority) of the blog-comment defenses of stringent copyright protections in regard to appropriation in music and visual art are made by individuals who have never profited directly in a significant way from copyright and likely never will, but who state their case out of some misplaced sense of imagined camaraderie. Rather than wrestle with the complexities of a legal system that has, arguably, helped keep them out of the marketplace, they act as empaths for the perceived misfortunes of the far more fortunate. This syndrome is whatever the opposite of slumming might be called.

Some antagonists to Baio’s project have gone so far as to describe the pixelated cover as “plagiarism,” which is absurd; there is no evidence of the Kind of Bloop participants trying to pass off the work as entirely their own. Others take offense at the concept of a chiptune adoption of Davis’ work. These detractors seem to miss the irony that this conversation is taking place in the realm of jazz: a genre in which out-of-context appropriation, the transformation of riffs and themes from pre-existing musical works, is part of its DNA.

And the second irony is this: Electronic music is often derided by acolytes of 1950s-era Miles Davis, who remain offended by albums like Bitches Brew and the work that followed it — and yet this time around the anti-electronic anger appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with when he, like Dylan, “went electric.”

Kind of Bloop remains available for purchase, though without the now outlawed cover, at kindofbloop.com, and the original fundraising plea is still viewable at kickstarter.com.

[ Also tagged , , / / Comments: 7 ]

Digital Dub from Mexico City (MP3s)

If memory serves sufficiently, then the purportedly imminent Singularity, such as it is envisioned in various novels by the esteemed Australian science fiction writer Greg Egan, is no more evenly distributed than is — as William Gibson put it with a characteristic axiomatic repeatability that unfortunately evades Egan — the future that is already here. Egan is the poet laureate of post-human rationalism, and in his vision, not every server farm unto which we might upload our consciousnesses runs at the same speed. There will be haves and have-nots in the post-digital future, just as there are in the digital present, and were in the pre-digital past. There will be, in the year 2050, those enjoying whatever the consensual-hallucination equivalent of retina display is, and there will be those plodding along on an old server just about capable of projecting its population as something more like virtual Lego figures. This all came to mind during a repeat listen to the chiptune collection Bit Pairat by Kupa, aka Cristian Cárdenas, who is based in Mexico City, Mexico. It opens, wisely if not uncommonly, with its strongest track, “Perdido,” which manages to be one of the best attempts ever to render dub with 8bit tools. It’s highly recommended, if only to experience the thick echoes of dub reproduced as blocky wave-like patterning.

Stream and download the full set of 11 tracks at vira-records.com. (I’d usually embed the streaming code here, but the music is hosted on Bandcamp.com, whose software player has been breaking the HTML on this site, for reasons yet to be determined.)

More on Kupa/Cárdenas at soundcloud.com/kupa, twitter.com/thakupa, and myspace.com/thakupa.

[ Also tagged , , / / Leave a comment ]