Disquiet Junto Project 0122: 8bit Undead ET

Create music for a fake movie whose plot is "Poltergeist meets Wreck-It Ralph."


Each Thursday at the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud.com a new compositional challenge is set before the group’s members, who then have just over four days to upload a track in response to the assignment. Membership in the Junto is open: just join and participate.

This project was published in the early evening, California time, on Thursday, May 1, with 11:59pm on the following Monday, May 5, 2014, as the deadline.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto).

Disquiet Junto Project 0122: 8bit Undead ET

This week’s project is fairly open-ended. The essential thing is that your music has an “8bit flavor” — define that as strictly as you wish.

You will write the opening theme music for a movie that doesn’t really exist. The film is a horror flick. The elevator pitch of the movie’s plot is “Poltergeist meets Wreck-It Ralph.” The opening sequence involves a housing development being constructed on the site of a former city dump. The construction crew discovers the burial site of one million cartridges of the ET Atari video game. The developer decides to pour concrete over the ET cartridges and continue building. But something has been awakened. Hundreds of thousands of 8bit ETs cannot be kept down!

Your music will accompany a film montage (again, this is entirely imaginary) covering the above description, which should last between two and four minutes.

Deadline: Monday, May 5, 2014, at 11:59pm wherever you are.

Length: The length of your recording should be between two and four minutes.

Information: Please when posting your track on SoundCloud, include a description of your process in planning, composing, and recording it. This description is an essential element of the communicative process inherent in the Disquiet Junto.

Title/Tag: When adding your track to the Disquiet Junto group on Soundcloud.com, please include the term “disquiet0122-8bET” in the title of your track, and as a tag for your track.

Download: It is preferable that your track is set as downloadable, and that it allows for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution).

Linking: When posting the track, please be sure to include this information:

More on this 122nd Disquiet Junto project — “Create music for a fake movie whose plot is ‘Poltergeist meets Wreck-It Ralph'” — at:

Disquiet Junto Project 0122: 8bit Undead ET

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

The Disquiet Junto Project List (0001 – 0574 …)

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Resolving the Sonic Themes on Fringe

The final season starts off with a musical statement of purpose.

When the final season of the TV series Fringe debuted this past Friday, September 28, there were many pressing questions: Would all our heroes emerge from amber in distant 2036? Would this dystopia look different in any considerable way from all the other recent Hollywood dystopias? Would Dr. Walter Bishop finally remember Astrid’s name? Would the Observers let slip their deep, dark secret — that Rogaine is people!?

One thing I was particularly focused on was the show’s employment of music — whether the inventive use of sound in the series would in some way play a substantial role as Dr. Bishop and his family/colleagues did their best to save the future in 13 episodes or less. Sound has been a central part of Fringe science and storytelling, from instants caught like record grooves in the plate glass of a crime scene, to the regular presence of pop music as a symbol of memory (often abetted by the appearance of a phonograph), to murderers incited by a Conet-style numbers station, to the chiptune version of the opening credits music in a flashback episode. And more broadly, attention to the creative employment of sound has been a hallmark of producer JJ Abrams’ production company’s work, notably in the ways various cues from Lost later surfaced in the ill-fated Alcatraz.

And then, shortly into the first episode (with the delightfully unwieldy title “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11”) of this final season, Dr. Bishop was taken hostage — and into his holding cell walked the Observer known as Windmark. And out of their mouths came as close as an Abrams production has ventured toward providing a conspicuous description of the role sound plays in his work. In the scene transcribed here, Windmark can listen in on Bishop’s thoughts, and he hears some music Bishop is attempting to summon up.

Windmark: I don’t know why you’re alive. … Oh, you’re trying to think of music. You … miss … music.

Bishop: There’s not a lot of it here.

Windmark: We tolerate it, but it’s merely tones, rhythms, harmonic vibrations. I don’t understand …

Bishop: Mostly it amazes me. Music helps you shift perspective, to see things differently if you need to.

Windmark: See things … like “hope.”

Bishop: Yes, very much like that.

Windmark: But there is no hope for you. Nothing grows from scorched earth.

Later in the episode, Bishop is saved from captivity. He wakes next to his patient assistant, the agent Astrid, and the first thing he says to her, after inevitably mangling her name (“Afro?”) is, “Do you have any music?” Later, after some more rest, Bishop’s spirits rise, in part because of colorful lights that dance on his face. These turn out to be the reflection of some broken CDs hanging in a makeshift mobile in the street outside the building where he’s resting. He wanders into the street, finds a CD hand-labeled “Trip Mix 6,” wipes it off, and pops it into a CD player (in an abandoned car that still happens to have battery power). Out comes Yaz’s “Only You,” and Bishop smiles. Through the windshield he spies something flowering in the dirt — so much for things not growing in scorched earth.

Given how distressed Bishop was earlier, it’s particularly comforting to see him not only at peace but pleased. And given how often the phonograph has been used to signify how out of touch he is with the modern world (echoing similar usage in Lost), it’s interesting that it’s not a vinyl record but a CD that plays a role in reviving him. That flower isn’t the only thing that’s maturing.

Update (2012.10.07): A friend pointed out to me at lunch today that the music in Walter’s head during the interrogation is “Song for the Unification of Europe”by composer Zbigniew Preisner, from the movie Blue (1993), directed by Krzysztof KieÅ›lowski. The musical theme is not just a presence in Blue but its subject, the work of the late husband of the character played by Juliette Binoche, in whose head the music repeatedly appears during the course of the film:

A quick search showed that this correlation between Fringe and Blue was also picked up by at aldeburgh.tumblr.com, where the above video was posted.

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.)

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.

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.