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tag: 8-bit

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.

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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.

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Tangents: Tinkerer, Hacker, Solderer … Felon?

Recommended reading, news, and so forth elsewhere:

¶ Tinkerer, Hacker, Solderer … Felon?: The idea that when we purchase consumer electronics devices we’re not free to do with them as we wish can feel like this consensual extralegal hallucination, but until it gets to the Supreme Court it’s going to remain in that wonderful zone of Forever Litigation (apologies to Joe Haldeman). We can look forward to “Master Chief v John Doe” on the docket some day — who knows which side Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney will take? — but in the meanwhile, an attempt to convict someone (a man in his late 20s named Matthew Crippen) for modding Microsoft Xbox 360s has ended, albeit on a procedural technicality: engadget.com, wired.com, joystiq.com. There doesn’t appear to be a Crippen entry at freedom-to-tinker.com, but that site, hosted by Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP), is a treasure trove of issues such as this one. As for the Microsoft case, it always seems remarkable when a company founded by hackers goes to war against hackers. Let’s be hopeful that Xbox’s new Kinect doesn’t get the same sort of helicopter-parent attention. Because the Kinect is proving eminently (intentionally, some might say) hackable: crunchgear.com, hackaday.com.

¶ DJ Hero (Circa 1985): While on the subject of extralegal gaming, this rendition of the audiogame DJ Hero needs to be seen to be believed. It re-imagines the game as if it had been programmed for an NES system back around the time Ronald Reagan was entering his second term as president:

This is no mere retro dream scenario. You can download the actual functioning game at ericruthgames.com. It speaks to the energy within the so-called chiptune, or 8bit, music community. If you think chiptune is just a self-conscious geek fetish, it’s important to understand it’s more than faux arcade music created long after the fact. A game like Ruth’s — which is to say the effort that goes into such games — speaks to the benefit many find in viewing our current technological experiences through the technology of the near past. As chiptune/8bit develops as a culture, it becomes increasingly like a near-past version of steampunk. (I was initially going to say “recent past,” but “near past” is better, because it aligns with the more common term, “near future.”) How 8bit culture differs from steampunk is worth spending more time pondering. One particular strong point is the way a new generation pushes old technology past its previous understood limits, both functionally and creatively; the result raises the bar for software engineering today, when practitioners feel less constrained — a situation that has led to bloatware, feature creep, and other tendencies of our time.

¶ Lacquered Up: Footage of the “Urushi musical interface,” developed by designer and musician Yuri Suzuki with composer/musician Matthew Rogers:

Apparently it resulted from a program led by Emiko Oki, intended to cross-pollinate British designers and traditional “lacquer craftsmen of Wajima, in Ishikawa prefecture.” More on Suzuki at yurisuzuki.com. Found via designboom.com. The photos at designboom.com show that the craft isn’t simply that of the lacquer experts; there’s a lot of detail about the musical interface’s development and production. This is way older than steampunk. This is Kamakura-punk.

¶ System-ing the Game Music: There’s discussion of procedural music systems going on at fe01.redstonewire.com, the Minecraft game’s message board. That’s via twitter.com/dizzybanjo, aka Robert Thomas, who is CCO at RjDj, the reactive-audio tool, and who after some message-board nay-saying by others weighs in with some constructive ideas:

In terms of how procedural music for games / virtual worlds is created – I agree with some points on this thread. When programming procedural music, its important to somehow codify the musical structures that are present in the types of compositions, or improvisations you want the system to create. This is an art form in itself.

¶ The Music Industry vs the Record Industry: Thanks to Alan Wexelblat of copyfight.corante.com for noting the Disquiet.com Despite the Downturn compilation (a multi-artist critique-in-music, or “answer album, to a specious article in The Atlantic by Megan McArdle) in his discussion of Jeff Price‘s “The State of The Music Industry & the Delegitimization of Artists,” which debunks a lot of music-business doomsday scenarios and received wisdom. Writes Wexelblat: “If this argument sounds familiar, it should: Marc Weidenbaum made this point back in May, though he did it artistically rather than by crunching the numbers.” Price’s work is at blog.tunecore.com.

¶ Give ‘Em a Beat: And the Stonesthrow Records weekly Beat Battles are rapidly approaching their 200th (!) consecutive week. Those battles are one of the major locus points of casual copyleft artistry and intense communal creativity on the Internet, a place where musicians, week in, week out, take a single shared sampled and see what they all manage to make with and (for the more accomplished ones) of it, extrapolate from it, limited by time (less than a week) and aesthetic (in the end, it’s all about the beat). Discussion has begun as to what will be the sample for week 200: stonesthrow.com.

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Fluid Movement Between Technological Generations (MP3s)

This sneak peek of a forthcoming video game says a lot about generational iterations in digital entertainment and culture. In the game, Mimeo and the Kleptopus King, the player leaps between not only those standard signifiers of gaming progress in platformers (i.e., levels), but also between degrees of video-tech sophistication, from 2-bit through 16-bit, and potentially onward.

Generations of audio development are less easily trackable than those in gaming, which is more clear-cut in its platform-dependency, but I wonder if there’s a music out there that can not only glide as easily between worlds as this game does, but that does so with the sort of emotional meaning packed in here — retro Pong samples and off-the-rack vocoding do not count.

Up above are the hero at various bit levels — note that they’re not just the same drawing with higher levels of resolution. And here are two sample stages of the game, showing how color and shading are depicted:

You need to watch the video below to appreciate the fluidity with which the game addresses these generations of technology. You aren’t just playing the same video game at with varying degrees of visual sophistication; certain moves require you to consider which bit level is the best way to proceed.

 

Here are examples of four degrees of audio, as represented in the Mimeo score — a 2-bit bass line (MP3), a 4-bit hi-hat (MP3), an 8-bit melody (MP3), and a 16-bit counter melody (MP3):

[audio:http://www.shauninman.com/assets/music/mimeo/Fortress%20(2-bit%20NSF).mp3|titles=”2-bit bass”|artists=Shaun Inman] [audio:http://www.shauninman.com/assets/music/mimeo/Fortress%20(4-bit%20NSF).mp3|titles=”4-bit hi-hat”|artists=Shaun Inman] [audio:http://www.shauninman.com/assets/music/mimeo/Fortress%20(8-bit%20NSF).mp3|titles=”8-bit melody”|artists=Shaun Inman] [audio:http://www.shauninman.com/assets/music/mimeo/Fortress%20(16-bit%20NSF).mp3|titles=”16-bit counter melody”|artists=Shaun Inman]

Original video post at vimeo.com. More on the development of Mimeo at the website of its creator, Shaun Inman, who also wrote the game’s music: shauninman.com (there’s an update explaining the development slowdown). Additional game footage at youtube.com/user/shauninman. Inman is also the developer of the game Horror Vacui (apple.com, creativeapplications.net).

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Manga / Video-Game Program Music (MP3s)

It’s kinda funny that it’s called “program music,” given what such a term suggests in our age of computer-assisted cultural activity.

That’s the term for the classical tradition in which an instrumental work has an inherent but unspoken (that is, unsung) narrative. Perhaps the best known, and best loved, example is The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, by Paul Dukas, which, as the Beatles might have put it, is based on a poem by a man named Goethe. We all have in our heads the Apprentice imagery — those animated mops and buckets — from Disney’s 1940 animation Fantasia (if not the more recent Nicolas Cage film), but Dukas’ music had been around for 43 years before that. Part of what made Fantasia such a fitting tribute to Dukas’ piece is that while the film provided an intoxicating, and indelible, stream of images, it didn’t add dialogue.

Music scholar Nicolas Slonimsky suggested the alternate term “descriptive music,” to allow for a phrase that more comfortably encompasses a broader range of less narrative-driven pieces, like Gustav Holst’s The Planets (not to be mistaken, of course, with Dr. Dre’s recently announced celestial hip-hop project — which it’s worth noting is reported to be instrumental, i.e. rapping-free) and Modest Mussorgksy’s Pictures at an Exhibition, as covered famously by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer — which brings us back, via prog-rock, to electronic music, circa the 1970s.

Last year, chiptune/8-bit figure Moldilox performed his own bit of “program music,” producing a score to a video game that had never existed, based on the great manga Drifting Classroom by Japanese genius Kazuo Umezu (see disquiet.com, thejosephlusterreport.blogspot.com). With tongue, and game controller, still firmly in cheek, he’s now followed that up with a lesser-known Umezu series, Fourteen, a sprawling future-fiction work starring the tragic poultry-human hybrid Chicken George (shown up top, alongside one of Fantasia‘s anthropomorphic mop buckets).

[audio:http://www.beepcity.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/01-The-Birth-of-Chicken-George.mp3|titles=”The Birth of Chicken George”|artists=”|artists=Moldilox] [audio:http://www.beepcity.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/02-The-Liberation-of-Chicken-George.mp3|titles=”The Liberation of Chicken George”|artists=Moldilox]

Moldilox’s faux-score for the faux-game has the following narrative, as he describes it:

“‘The Birth of Chicken George’ and ‘The Liberation of Chicken George’ follow the first and second stages, respectively. The first finds the player controlling the lump that will become Chicken George, maneuvering past scientists in the lab, and eventually making it toward a series of computer terminals while fighting off attackers and growing piece by piece. Stage two has George free at last, and running rampant through a zoo filled with scientific horrors, releasing them all and unleashing them on the unprepared masses.”

Both are performed in classic 8-bit sounds from the Pliocene era of video games, as developed in the audio-software program Milky Tracker (milkytracker.org). The song “Birth” (MP3) has a suitably eerie opening section, with industrial noises, as well as rises and drops in scales that suggests some serious shoots’n’ladders action. And “Liberation” (MP3), with its disco-Beethoven motif, ups the pace, with a more complicated melody, and a lot more zooming around, including moments of dramatic pausing. As with pre-Fantasia Dukas, you’ll have no trouble picturing the action in your head.

More on the project, for which Moldilox provided the game-cartridge image shown above, at beepcity.com.

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