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

Monthly Archives: October 2010

Netlabels, HTML5, and the Open Web

The absence of Flash in iOS, Apple’s mobile-device operating system, is the sort of tech-insider discussion that on the surface seems unlikely to filter into daily conversation among non-professionals. For most people, Flash is a semi-transparent working part of their daily Internet activities, fueling video, small interactive games, even entire websites — a source of frustration, certainly (long load times, frequent plug-in updates), but such is the nature of the Internet.

The OS wars, like other corporate melees, however, have a way of becoming part of everyday life. Apple’s commitment to HTML5, a still-in-the-works protocol that has yet to see widespread adoption, led me to check in with the proprietors of netlabels, those websites that give away their releases, with the full permission of the contributing artists, for free on the web. Many such netlabels simply provide links to Zip archives of MP3s, others to individual links; others use Flash to provide rudimentary streaming capability.

Here are the responses of six such netlabel heads regarding their perspective — on HTML5, iOS, and related web standards — from around the world (the U.S., Bulgaria, Germany, and Portugal):

Dimitar “Mitko” Kalinov of Dusted Wax Kingdom (dustedwax.org):

There is no Flash on the Dusted Wax Kingdom web site. I prefer to keep it simple, clean and easy to load. HTML5 provides some really good options (but it’s still a draft) and when I have more free time I’ll check deeper and see if I can optimize the page.

Nathan Larson of Dark Winter (darkwinter.com), Endless Ascent (endlessascent.com), and Wandering Ear (wanderingear.com).

That’s a great question and very relevant given the adoption rate of the iPad. At Dark Winter and my other labels (Wandering Ear, Endless Ascent) I have tried to keep the sites as minimal as possible to allow them be loaded as quickly as possible regardless of browser or screen size. Sure, my site isn’t as flashy but it’s straightforward and gets my listeners to the music as quickly as possibly in a consistent format. My site does utilize some video when provided by artists but then it’s usually hosted through YouTube and Vimeo and these most providers now make videos universally viewable so it’s not an issue. I will be looking at doing a redesign in the future but my agenda will be the same — use of globally recognized coding standards that be read on all units.

Pedro Leitão of Test Tube (monocromatica.com):

I have thought about the lack of Flash support on the iPhone, and more recently on iPad, which is a bigger platform, more likely to turn into the ‘handheld computer’ of the future. Most people I know that use iPads are putting the laptop away and do almost everything on the new device. But most of them tell me that Flash is a bit overrated at the moment. As you wrote, HTML5 and possibly other languages could easily be excellent alternatives to what Flash can do so I’m not concerned about it. I’m still a man of static HTML, and I know it’s pretty much obsolete nowadays, and I have someone working on a open-source platform for the netlabels I run. Because I know I have to eventually change.

Igor Ballereau of SHSK’H (shskh.com):

Nobody needs a merchant forcing his morals on the whole Internet. So we just tell people around us to put the rotten apple aside. This is not a problem of Flash vs HTML5. This is far more serious. This is about a never-ending breed of people wanting to decide the way you should walk or talk. This world is variety, whether one likes it or not.

Chris McDill of Webbed Hand (webbedhandrecords.com):

Since its beginning, Webbed Hand has been a Windows-centric netlabel. I do not have an Apple computer, nor devices, much less a cell phone. I am aware that such devices are being used to store and play music, and to me it’s enough that they handle MP3s well, which can be accessed via my site using basic html links. While I may eventually add Flash or other apps to the site, I’ll always try to have old-fashioned links to the files, since there’s not only the Apple/Flash conflict, but many browser plugins that block ads and scripts may also disable embedded players etc. Moreover I don’t have access to any Apple computers or devices to check how the site and its content appear, so I play it safe and keep things as basic as possible. I’ve seen the recent articles that Adobe and Microsoft are considering a merger in hopes of adapting to Apple’s resistance to Flash. Somehow HTML5 has a role in this conflict, but I haven’t studied up on that side of things. I’m going to wait for the dust to settle on this, and by then hopefully systems like WordPress (which I use to manage the label’s homepage) will have evolved to make content available across all platforms uniformly. In the meantime I’m going to just keep it simple.

Christian Kausch of Broque (broque.de):

Thank you for your question. Yes, it’s a topic for us. But we currently have a way to offer a minimal standard, because this is the way everybody can visit us or download our music. Maybe not everybody can use every feature from us, but the basics have to be possible every time. To participate in the newer Internet ways, we’re working on an iPhone/iPad app, and I hope next year we can present the result.

Perhaps the best index of active netlabels is at disruptiveplatypus.wordpress.com.

For a peek into the thinking of folks who run netlabels, here’s a group discussion, from 2006, featuring Dark Winter’s Larson, Test Tube’s Leitão, and Andras Hargitai of Complementary Distribution: “Free as in Netlabel.”

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Reich’s 2×5, Splayed and Ready for Remixing

The first time Steve Reich‘s music was the focus of a major remix operation, it culminated in Reich Remixed, a 1999 collection that set the likes of Coldcut, Andrea Parker, Nobukazu Takemura, and others on such minimalist monuments as “Music for 18 Musicians,” “The Four Sections,” and “Drumming.” Of course, this is almost a decade after the Orb worked Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” into its “Little Fluffy Clouds,” a successful classical-pop graft that made it the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of electronica.

Nonesuch, Reich’s longtime label, was still coming up to speed on the concept of remixes. At the time, Howie B (then perhaps still best known as part of the quartet Skylab), told me of his experience being invited to participate: “They turned around and said, ‘Can’t you sample off the CD?’ and I went, ‘No, that’s not why I’m doing it. I want to touch on the sounds that were there.’ It’s not like doing a normal remix.” In other words, the label’s idea of a remix was working from the completed track, not from the multitracks, which while certainly common, undermined the creative potential of the contributing musicians.

Times have changed, and the understanding of remixing along with it. As of this morning, the pristine, entirely separate, eight constituent parts of the third movement of Reich’s composition “2×5” have been made available for downloading and remixing, as part of one of the remix contests at indabamusic.com. The basic stems set breaks it into eight parts: two bass, two drums, two guitar, two piano. That’s something of a reduction of the original, because “2×5,” as the name suggests, features not eight but ten musicians (two equally matched five-piece rock bands); the stem set combines the two drummers into one track.

Don’t despair; there’s also a 20-track advanced set that, true to Reich’s emphasis on percussion, breaks the drum set down even further. The judges for the contest are Reich himself and Christian Carey, who’s a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music. The due date for participants is November 2. Get the full set at indabamusic.com.

“2×5” had its recording debut earlier this year when paired with “Double Sextet,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music last year, in a performance by Bang on a Can (eighth blackbird performs the other work).

My interview with Reich, and some of the contributing musicians, on the occasion of Reich Remixed here: “The Public Record.”

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The ShapeSeq of Things to Come

Developer Paul Apfrod on how programming is like composing, the need for a "software art" iTunes subcategory, and how how octagons look nicer than squares

ShapeSeq for the iPhone and iPod Touch produces four rudimentary noises, which makes it sort of like the ukulele of music apps — well, if there weren’t already a lot of ukulele apps.

Each noise in ShapeSeq is one of the basic waveforms: sine, square, triangle, saw. And each waveform is symbolized by a basic shape-color combination: a blue circle, a red pentagon, a green triangle, an orange square.

Placing or moving one of those symbols on the screen (ShapeSeq also works on the iPad), you can roughly determine a given shape’s pitch (along the vertical axis) and volume (along the horizontal). It will then repeat. The manner in which that selected pattern repeats is determined by two factors: the pace of the loop, and whether it’s a four-beat or eight-beat sequence. These options can be altered in realtime, which makes ShapeSeq as much a performance tool as a compositional one.

This all seems fairly straightforward, right? But play with ShapeSeq for even a short period of time, and the expansive variety of potential patterns becomes apparent. Says the app’s British developer, Paul Apfrod, “One thing I like about what emerges from the simple system I created is the blurring of boundaries between what would be considered a note or a single beat of a sound and of a rhythm or melody of several sounds.” From little things big things grow.

After & Before: Screenshots of the iOS app ShapeSeq (above) and the earlier, pre-iOS version, called Shape Sequencer, which involved PlayStation 2 controllers (below, in a still from video footage)

To trace the course of ShapeSeq’s own development, you have to go back to 2004, several years before the 2007 launch of the iPhone. ShapeSeq had an earlier life as an art-installation project, when it was called Shape Sequencer. It was built in Pd, or Pure Data, a visual programming language that has a shared lineage with Max/MSP, and it was played on Windows machines using PlayStation 2 controllers (the PlayStation 2 at this point would have been a half-decade old). It also allowed for multiple players in a kind of cyber-jam.

Since then, the application has made two significant evolutionary jumps: from open-source art-hack to the commercial world of the iTunes Store, and from site-specific installations to global distribution. The website creativeapplications.net, which tracks the intersection of interaction and artistry, listed it among the “15 Best and Must Have iPhone Apps of 2009.” As Apfrod puts it, his project has gone from “art installation” to “software instrument.”

ShapeSeq is one of a host of music apps that have helped feed a growing popular interest in playing with, manipulating, sound. Such sonic play is an inherent part of contemporary experimental electronic music — from so-called “handmade music” tools to the home-brew software patches developed by laptop musicians. What’s remarkable about the music app field is that everyday consumers are participating in what previously would have been an esoteric affair.

Apfrod, who was born in Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, and currently lives south of London, studied interaction design, and says most of his programming skills are self-taught. A musician himself, his earliest music-making experience took place, foretelling his current activity, on the Amiga personal computer. Over the course of an interview about ShapeSeq, he talked about, among other things, the cultural and technological shifts between Shape Sequencer and ShapeSeq, how programming is like composing music (and vice versa), and the need for a “software art” subcategory in the iTunes app store.


 

Marc Weidenbaum: How did ShapeSeq originate?

Paul Apfrod: ShapeSeq for iPhone is the child of the earlier Shape Sequencer project, which was made in Pd — Pure Data — and allowed four players to jam using four PlayStation 2 controllers. Shape Sequencer came from an investigation into notions of “playing” in the sense of musical instruments and video games, trying to address the problems of immediacy, intuitiveness, and expressivity for electronic music performers and audiences. It became its own type of musical instrument, with simple geometric shapes on screen representing different sounds. As the players move the shapes around, shrink them and rotate them, so the sound of each shape is changed in pitch, volume, and timbre. Thus, the players have their movements magnified into a live video abstract representation of the sounds being created. This visual feedback is good for the practice of the player, and satisfying for the audience, as they can follow the usually obscured practices of the electronic music performer by watching the screen. Read more »

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Sound, Class, and Sound Clash Over Bangkok

Urbanologists and field-recording enthusiasts alike will appreciate the third episode of Ben Tausig‘s “Bangkok Is Ringing” series, part of the ongoing podcast from canopycanopycanopy.com (aka Triple Canopy). The episode (MP3) peers up above the city’s impoverished streets to a space reserved for those who can afford it, a space distinguished in large part by how it shields its customers from the noise of everyday life. That space is the Skytrain, pictured here.

[audio:http://canopycanopycanopy.com/static/0000/3000/Bangkok_Is_Ringing__Episode_3.mp3|titles=”Bangkok Is Ringing Episode 3″|artists=Ben Tausig]

Tausig describes the “Rising” series as “exploring the politics of urban sound in Bangkok and beyond, through first-person reporting, field recordings, and analysis.” The documentary audio in episode three focuses on nine rapid beats, which signify that the doors of the Skytrain are closing, after which, as Tausig describes it, “a deeper silence sets in.” The entry emphasizes the class differences between those who can and cannot afford passage, a passage, as he puts it, “sealed from the street’s eternal drone.”

Of course, there is no such thing a true silence — one range of noises is exchanged for another, and the Skytrain indeed has its own soundscape, marked by “mild music” and polite chatter. Descriptive explanatory text and interviews (there’s a particularly memorably moment when his recording device is mistaken for a Nintendo Game Boy) mingle with original field recordings of the city and its elevated transportation system for a compelling portrait-in-audio of Bangkok in transition.

Tausig, a PhD student in ethnomusicology at NYU, blogs at weirdvibrations.com, where he expands on the theme of the piece, writing of the experience of Bangkok’s citizens:

They want to shop and work in spaces parallel to those that have been overrun, where sensation has become for them overwhelming. So new channels are carved. The city becomes sedimented, with layers corresponding to something like class. Money, or lack of it, enforces access to these layers, but so do composure and habit.

Skytrain image, above, from wikimedia.org. Street-level image below by Tausig:

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CC, the CBC, and What We Talk About When We Talk About “Noncommercial”

Just over a year ago, in September 2009, Creative Commons published the lengthy Defining “Noncommercial”: A Study of How the Online Population Understands “Noncommercial Use” (PDF, creativecommons.org), which I have only just begun to read.

I’ve always wondered what qualifies as “commercial use” when it comes to Creative Commons music. The pressing concern for netlabels, which often release music under the Creative Commons license, is: Does having a blog about music, and streaming or providing download links to non-commercial-use CC music, count as “commercial” if the blog features advertising? How about podcasts, or radio shows, that also have advertising? There are currently no ads on Disquiet.com, so it’s a moot point here, from a practical perspective. (This site is licensed by CC “permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution.”)

But from a philosophical perspective, it’s a pressing concern. The reason: An apparent decision by the CBC to not use CC music on its podcasts has brought the issue to the fore. There’s good coverage and comment-discussion at michaelgeist.ca, techdirt.com, and createdigitalmusic.com.

An overview of the September 2009 Defining “Noncommercial” survey, in the form of a press release (creativecommons.org), provides some initial insight, stating that websites on which advertising is in the realm of “cost recovery” (“to cover hosting costs”), as well as “use by not-for-profits,” is not viewed as “commercial” as much as are more clearly for-profit uses.

The forums at Creative Commons appear to be underutilized (forum.creativecommons.org), and as of this writing there’s no mention of the CBC issue at twitter.com/creativecommons either, so let’s look forward to a formal response from the organization.

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