The National Recording Registry

Who gets to decide what a classic is?

We don’t often think of librarians as powerful people, but by choosing what to preserve, librarians can stitch history from a grab bag of remnants. Especially if those librarians work at the Library of Congress and they’ve been charged with carrying out the dictates of the National Recording Preservation Act.

Just what is the National Recording Preservation Act? Well, our old friend Alan Kennedy, former music industry insider and musical trivia nonpareil, is here to tell us.

Continue reading “The National Recording Registry”

The talking piano

Fourier analysis tells us that you can do a darn good job modeling any periodic waveform by adding together a series of sine waves. The image below was lifted from the Wikipedia article on the Gibbs phenomenon, in which the goal is to assemble a square wave.


On Jim Bumgardner’s KrazyDad blog I came across this talking piano. It’s from a German-language documentary, but the modeled words are in English. What’s going on? In a process similar to Fourier analysis, you can play lots of piano notes that together add up to a pretty good approximation of someone talking. Spoken words have lots of structure, and musical notes are building blocks of acoustic structure. With the help of a computer and many-fingered robotic pianist, you can make a piano talk.

It’s an uncanny sound. I think it’s just begging to appear in a haunted house movie.

Möbius music

Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is one of my all-time favorite books. As the name implies, there are many references to Bach’s music, particularly his fugues and canons. When I was reading the book back in high school, it was hard to track down and listen to all the music that came up in the book, let alone their musical scores. The world is different now, though. Take Bach’s Crab Canon, for example. Now you can find sites aplenty that describe it, show you the music, and play it. It’s called a crab because it is played against itself forward and backwards simultaneously. Don’t believe me? Look at this MIDI roll visualization (it looks like a crab!), and then listen to the audio file played backwards. You can’t do that to too many pieces of music and still have something worth hearing.

But wait! Why not look at how Bach’s canons resemble functions, and our friend the crab is g(t) = f(18-t). And if you print the piece out on a Möbius strip, you and a friend can play it together, assuming you’re on the same differentiable manifold (ha ha! you knew that). But don’t take my word for it. Watch the video.

Curiously, when it comes to Möbius music, Bach is not the only game in town. I was thoroughly charmed by this video of Vi Hart playing her comparatively recent composition, the Harry Potter Septet on a Möbiola. I like how the variable crank speed is part of the performance.

PLEASE NOTE: I don’t know if it’s really called Möbiola, but that’s what I would call it if I were king.

Kutiman mixes YouTube

YouTube is filled with music. There are instructional videos, performance videos, and people simply practicing or showing off in front of their cameras. Find a piece you like and, from the comfort of your own home, you can play with them in a virtual jam session. Ophir Kutiel, an Israeli musician, was doing exactly this one day, playing his guitar alongside a drum video. Maybe it was this one.

And he had a revelation: couldn’t he could find another YouTube video of a guitarist to play with the drummer? He could mix and match a virtual band that never existed. From this insight, he built an entire album of music videos hacked together from dozens of pre-existing videos.

He released it earlier this year under his professional name, Kutiman, and it became a viral internet sensation. It’s really great. If you haven’t seen it already, please please watch it here: THRU YOU | Kutiman mixes YouTube. “The Mother of All Funk Chords” is the mother of all mashups. Kutiman is a virtuoso metamusician, and his instrument is the YouTuba.

Ramsey theory is a mathematical theory built around the idea that complete disorder is impossible. Order is inevitable. Chaos can’t stop itself from knitting a lovely sweater every now and again. Luckless cacophony can only push so far up the curve of diminishing returns. YouTube may look like a bottomless sack of horseshit, but there’s a symphony in there and Kutiman knows how to fish it out.

And so may we all. I find Ramsey theory profoundly comforting. When it seems like everything is going to hell, look around for the magic sparks.

Visual music

Stephen Malinowski is a polymath composer/musician/programmer who created something called the Music Animation Machine. What it does is animate music scores in a way that makes their rhythmic and tonal structures really jump out at you.

For example, here is a Chopin Etude (opus 10, #7)

Having warmed up with that, you’ll have fun watching Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Nr. 4, third movement, presto. Fugues are fun to watch, since the visual patterns help you follow the repeating elements in the music. Here is a piece by Vincent Lo that builds a Bach-style fugue from Nokia’s default ringtone: the Nokia Ringtone Fugue. When they perform that one, do you think they encourage people to turn on their cellphones?

Malinowski has a YouTube channel with several other videos. Of course, since he spent years making this thing, he’d really like to sell you a video about it. It looks like a good deal to me, but the store page is really notable for the shockingly different musical constructions you see from different composers. Go look at it now. It’s mesmerizing. Compare Bach’s braided filigrees with Chopin’s slabs and slashes.

Thanks to YouTube, we all have synesthesia.

Pandora Radio on the iPod touch

A few weeks ago I wrote about how my iPod touch serves the purpose of a laptop in the kitchen. With the advent of the new iPhone 2.0, I was able to upgrade my iPod software (for $10) and get some of the new iPhone Apps. Among the apps are two that I suspect I’ll use a lot: Pandora and

I’ve been hearing good things about the Sonos system, but that seemed like overkill for my needs. I just want to listen to nice music when I’m in the kitchen. Sonos lets you pick any music you have on your computer and listen to it anywhere in the house. But here’s the problem: I can’t be bothered to pick out music, even the music that I own. I get lazy and listen to the same few things over and over. I actually prefer the way Pandora and present my musical options. Just pick an artist or a genre and press “go”. That’s about my speed.

This is what convergence looks like for me. I’m happy getting my music streamed to me through my wifi-enabled iPod using these two services. The iPod sits in a little speaker mount next to a big Bose radio/CD player that I never use anymore.

Music at the beach

Back from a week-long vacation and a long web hiatus. The vacation was at the beach in North Carolina, and since it was an extended family gathering I got to play some music with my cousins and my brother.

That’s my cousin Billy on the mandolin and my cousin Missy on the fiddle. My brother Larry has the concertina, and I’m playing the tin whistle. You can just see my brother John playing the single-malt Scotch on the deck in the background. He has a Scotch solo in this picture (he’s good!), but we all played the Scotch at one time or another. We had a great time making music and drinking Scotch of varying quality most of the nights we were there.

I was talking to John later on about music, and I strongly recommended that he visit my friend Greg Bacon’s excellent site. You should too. Even better, follow this link to all of his posts that have been tagged (by Greg) tunes I like. Every one of the posts has a free, high-quality, entertaining, self-playing MP3. Lovely tunes all. Greg is as generous as he is talented.

Sea songs and semantic distance

Here’s another one of those semantic distance stories: how long does it take to formulate the right question when you just know the answer is out there somewhere?

One of the various obscure records* in my house when I was growing up was Songs & Sounds of the Sea. It was a collection of sea chanteys recorded by National Geographic. I’d been looking for it over the years online and never had any luck. Because of its sentimental value, this recording is in the category of things I’d be happy to pay real money for if I could just find someone to sell it to me.

My web searches were thwarted partially because I had misremembered the name of the album as Men, Ships, and the Sea. This is in fact a book by Alan Villiers which we also had in the house when I was growing up. But there is no recording by this name, so I would curse and assume that no one had bothered to index this obscure album. I should have suspected that no recording is so obscure that nobody so much as mentions it once on the web. But then when I searched for individual songs I remembered, I sailed into another kind of semantic fog: there are lots and lots of sea chantey sites and recordings that masked the instance I was looking for.

Misremembered labels, over-rich results field… it made me wonder how many kinds of semantic fog there are. Or rather, what factors contribute to semantic distance?

At any rate, eventually I got lucky and found all the MP3s in the clear on this web page for Radio KRUD: Songs & Sounds of the Sea / Star Wars / Fresh KRUD. Enjoy. It may not be your cup of tea, but I know at least some family members out there who will be happy to rediscover this old friend.

* What do you even call these things anymore? LPs? Vinyl? Half the online population has never seen them.