Virtual Concerts for the Lockdown

March 27th, 2020 •

Although we can’t go out to concerts right now, we can visit the video and audio archives generously shared by many adventurous venues and ensembles. The list below is just a (very) small start. Please tell me if you know of any good live new music archives.

ISSUE Project Room Archives (video)
“ISSUE’s public media archive is a consistently updated and freely accessible collection of video and audio documentation from recent and past ISSUE performances.”

Roulette TV (video)
“Roulette TV captures the creative process of live performance, giving viewers a unique window into Roulette’s distinctive programming through in-depth artist-driven features including studio visits, performance footage, and interviews.”

Tracking The Odds: The Roulette Concert Archive (audio, podcast)
“A monthly hour-long radio special produced by Roulette Intermedium (roulette.org) and broadcast in partnership with Wave Farm’s WGXC 90.7-FM and Standing Wave Radio. The broadcasts feature selected highlights from Roulette’s New York experimental music space dating from the early 1980s to the present. Thousands of rare, formative, and often unheard recordings by innovators and adventurous musicians populate the archive.”

Roulette Concert Archive Monthly Mix (audio)
“Featuring curated playlists from our concert archives, tune in to Roulette’s SoundCloud for new discoveries.”

DigitICE (video)
“DigitICE is ICE’s digital media library. Streaming performances of individual works from our live concerts, along with interviews and behind-the-scenes videos are available here for free. Most feature high definition video and high quality audio.”

Resistance Bots

January 24th, 2017 •

Everyone has their breaking point. My work has tended towards more abstract modes of expression so it has rarely been overtly political. But it appears that the fact that this dishonest, unqualified, unserious and unworthy dumpster fire of a human being could somehow become our president is apparently beyond my limit to bear in silence. So in the aftermath of this disastrous election, Betsy and I started to think more and more about what kind of changes we should make to our current and future projects.

One of the great things about making art with software that lives on the internet is that it can be updated easily and frequently. In fact, the potential an idea has to evolve over time is a high priority when we’re considering our next project. It’s natural for the changing cultural and political landscape to influence the direction of such a work over time.

The first thing we did after the election was temporarily shut down our Twitter bots. In truth, this wasn’t so much a political statement as self-care. Waking up on November 9th, way too early and way too hungover, with continuing difficulty processing this new reality, I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and looked at my Twitter feed. Watching the satirical movie pitches of Jerry Botheimer (@jerrybotheimer) and the silly photo collages of Kiddie Rides BK (@kiddieridesbk) pass by just felt…wrong. I turned to Betsy and suggested that we shut them down temporarily. She agreed.

We shut them down once again on Inauguration Day. This time the silence was more purely ideological. Many art spaces shut down in protest that day and it felt appropriate to pause our bots in solidarity. We planned to use this downtime to add new content related to the current…situation we’ve found ourselves in. It would have been difficult to focus on any of my other work anyway, so this had a side benefit of distracting me from an obsessive wallow through the news.

Jerry Botheimer and Kiddie Rides each have a different character, but both were meant to be silly and fun, and neither was particularly political before their Inauguration Day updates. Nevertheless, these differences suggested a way of adding a political twist to each, in which they could retain their established character. Both will draw solely from this new political material until the end of January. After that, it will be a mix of the old and the new.

For Jerry Botheimer, the new direction was fairly obvious. Jerry Botheimer produces stereotypical Hollywood-style movie pitches by drawing from a set of formulas into which random actors, directors, genres, pets, etc. can be inserted. Though simple, this approach still creates some fun and unexpected juxtapositions so that even when a formula is repeated, it’s possible for it to contain new meaning.

To update Jerry Botheimer, it was just a matter of creating movie pitch formulas that are “ripped from the headlines,” as they say. I started things off in a blunt, unsubtle fashion:

[ACTOR] is a fascist clown who accidentally becomes president.

We did leave that formula in the mix, but fortunately from there Betsy took over and added a couple of dozen (and counting) formulas with more, er, depth. Though the new formulas are more thematically serious than the previous Hollywood caricatures that Jerry Botheimer churned out, the new pitches do continue to retain a silly and irreverent tone. Hopefully Jerry Botheimer now reflects the state of the world a little better while still retaining it’s original spirit.

While Jerry Botheimer now complains about how things are today, the new Kiddie Rides BK update reminds us of how things can be again. For the last few years, Betsy has been taking pictures of those quarter-gobbling cartoon characters you find outside bodegas and grocery stores that kids can ride on for a minute at a time. The best of them are posted to Instagram and Twitter tagged with #kiddieridesofbrooklyn. The Kiddie Rides BK bot takes the rides from this collection and inserts them into old public domain photos. Some of the background photos are pretty prosaic, but many come from recognizable sources such as the depression-era Works Progress Administration and early NASA missions.

Recognizable or not, the background photos have a sort of inherent nostalgia attached to them. Continuing in this vein, we selected photos from the first 100 days of the Obama administration. Hopefully this reminder of a time of Hope can provide a small respite or elicit the occasional smile.

As it turns out, in addition to updates to these existing bots, Inauguration Day found us making a brand new bot as well. While procrastinating the work described above, I fired off a jokey suggestion to Betsy:

Damon: I’m not feeling much like being mature today. I’m thinking we should make “Trump is a” Bot. It just tweets juvenile insults. Trump is a weenie. Trump is an asshole. Trump is a penis head. Etc. It’ll just take about an hour…

Not taking the bait, Betsy suggested:

Betsy: I don’t know sweets. Can you make it more original/genius?

Undeterred, I defended my nascent masterwork:

Damon: It is genius!!!

Then the joke actually became a real idea:

Betsy: Maybe it could just tweet Trump’s own insults. Perhaps at him?

Damon: We’re rubber and he’s glue everything he says bounces off of us and sticks to him.

Betsy: Exactly.

And thus a new bot was conceived. About a Bully (@insultingdonald) takes the history of all of Trump’s tweeted insults and simply turns each one around on Trump. Even if you don’t follow him on Twitter, you may have heard that, from time to time (*ahem*), Trump takes to it to insult people he doesn’t like. Well, these Twitter insults have been collected in one place (of course) and the list is a doozy. You hear about his stupid rants and tantrums, but to see them all collected in one place is something else. We’ve been manually processing the list to make each insult be about Trump instead of whoever it was meant for (Trump is.., Trump has…, Trump can’t, etc.). They are so consistently juvenile and substance-free that few of these insults make less sense when applied to Trump. Hence our school yard inspired slogan: “Everyone’s rubber and Trump’s glue, whatever he says bounces off them and sticks to him.”

At a rate of five a day, using just the insults that were collected before Trump’s inauguration, it will take well over year before About a Bully will have to repeat itself. Well, that’s only half true. Trump’s lack of imagination is displayed in the repetitive nature of his bile-stream, and so About a Bully will reflect that. I had originally thought that this would be just a throw-away punchline bot; something to blow off a little steam and maybe provide a cheap laugh or two. But it turns out that watching these insults pass through my Twitter stream in a relentless march provided a more enlightening perspective on just how much more hateful and petty this man is than I could have realized. The coincidental relationship between About a Bully’s latest tweet and the latest news from Trumpville also frequently proves interesting. Perhaps this is just the beginning for this bot too. Maybe there’s room for it to grow beyond its original, simple idea.

I kept myself informed. I voted. I gave to the ACLU, the EFF, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I spent a very long day making some silly bots slightly less silly and ended up creating a third as well. I marched. Will political themes now appear more frequently in my art? I don’t know, but I do know there’s a lot more work to be done.

Beep, Beep, Beep – and Not the Good Kind

April 27th, 2015 •

My Mom recently left me a voicemail message consisting of 30 seconds of quiet noises and a repetitive beeping sound. Of course it was just a pocket-dial, and where she was at the time was near one of any of a zillion beeping things that appear throughout one’s day (after talking to my Mom, it seems likely that it was an elevator). My mind, however, jumped straight to the conclusion that the beeps came from hospital machinery. In hindsight, I realize I’m a total idiot for not assuming the pocket-dial interpretation over the I-need-to-get-on-a-plane one. Who would leave 30 seconds of “silence” from a hospital room?

Funny how quick we* can sometimes be to jump to the worst possible conclusion. I guess worrying about my parents is just one more item to add to the growing number of signs of aging.

* And by “we” I mean “I.”

Nostalgia with Wires

April 16th, 2015 •

The first synthesizer I owned was a Roland Alpha Juno 1. The first synthesizer I spent any time with was probably my friend’s Korg Poly 800. I have the most nostalgia, however, for the semi-modular Roland System-100. Hours spent with it in De Anza College’s tiny practice room/synth studio, and Dan Mitchell’s classes, taught me the basics of synthesis. Before that, my understanding was relatively limited. The crutch of presets that my previous synth provided, even if it they were just a jumping off point for programming, perhaps made mastery less urgent. Working with the preset-free System 100 is when I started to really understand how synthesizers work. What moment in a budding young electronic musician’s life is more thrilling than the time this strange collection of wires, knobs and sliders emits a sound like a tuba? Well, lots of times, of course, like the discovery of all the chaos you can wring out of it. But still, for some reason I do really remember that tuba…

Anyway, what brings this to mind is Roland’s announcement that they are releasing, in addition to some digital Eurorack gear, the new 500 Series of analog synth modules. It’s been decades since the modular approach has been a good fit for my style of music making. I briefly considered diving back in a few years ago, but quickly dismissed it as impractical for me and continued creating custom software-based instruments that are more limited, but more immediate (and more portable). In the meantime, the modular world has continued its amazing explosion of new modules from companies large and small. Hardly a month goes by without some cool new module appearing, tempting me back into the world of spaghetti cables. Lucky for me, it’s still an expensive hobby, so I’m safe. For now.

Accessorize Your Big Honkin’ Phone

February 3rd, 2015 •

I’m generally pretty hesitant to junk up my phone with attachments of any kind. I’ve only ever briefly even used a case on any of my iPhones, though I will sometimes use a battery case when needed. But as much as I love the added screen real estate of my iPhone 6 Plus, it comes at the expense of easy one-handed use. So, with some trepidation, I decided to try one of those stick-on finger straps. The one I chose has the oh-so-graceful Amazon.com title of nobiggi Finger Strap – Ultrathin – Comfortable Elastic Strap and Faux Leather Patch – Extend Thumb Reach for iPhone 6 and 6 Plus Users – Fits Most Mobile Devices (Premium Black). Aaah, just rolls off the tonge, doesn’t it? As it turns out, it actually works pretty well. I’ve only been using it for a few weeks, so I can’t vouch for it’s durability, but if you’ve been eyeing something like this it might be worth a shot.

Talking to Yourself

January 26th, 2015 •

When the iPhone first integrated Siri I spent some time with it. I asked it stupid questions, insulted it, complimented it, asked for jokes, and did all the silly and quickly clichéd stuff one does when confronted with new technology. This, a friend once suggested to me, is the period of “getting the cheese out.” Then, after that initial exploration, I largely ignored it. I suspect this is the case for most people. Siri’s utility wasn’t immediately compelling and was clearly an early work in progress. In fact, Apple even called it beta. Google’s voice technology was a little better, but I didn’t find that particularly useful either. This was partly due to it’s lack of integration into the system in iOS, and partly due to the fact that it’s still mainly useful for Google-y things.

Then one day, I noticed the little microphone button on the keyboard — or rather, I stopped ignoring it. I’ve started using voice dictation for small things like text messages, notes to myself, or Google searches. It actually works pretty well. It’s occasionally a little slow, especially if when you have poor internet connectivity, but most of the time it’s quick and surprisingly accurate. I frequently find it useful, especially in situations where it’s inconvenient to stop and type. It does, I admit, sometimes feel silly talking to my phone but if you put the phone up to your head you can always pretend you’re on a call. Plus, I live in Brooklyn, so I’m unlikely to be the weirdest person people around me see that day, no matter what inanimate object I start talking to.

What may be slowing widespread adoption of this technology is not that it doesn’t work well, but that it takes practice. When we talk we use language differently than when we write. In order to get comfortable with dictation, one has to learn how to speak the way that one writes. It can be awkward to dictate even casual communications. I often find myself starting to talk to my phone only to realize three words into it that I don’t know how to to finish my thought.

This reminds me of the moment Apple introduced the touchscreen keyboard. Legions of loyal Blackberry users declared that you would take their physical keyboards only when you pried them from their cold, dead hands. Tech pundits declared that the iPhone would never survive in the face of an Android ecosystem that included devices with physical keyboards (and of course Flash…heh). But here we are, 6 years later, and the physical smartphone keyboard is all but extinct. It turns out that typing on a touchscreen isn’t really that bad. Of course there are holdouts, but they’re outliers.

A couple of factors aided the quick transition to touchscreen keyboards. Smartphone market penetration was low when the iPhone was released in 2007, so most people didn’t have to re-learn how to type on mobile, just learn. Also, for most of us, the benefits clearly outweighed the costs: in exchange for ditching our keyboards, we get thin, light devices with large, beautiful screens. If you don’t prefer hardware keyboards, and actually I don’t, it’s just a win all around.

So now we’re in a position where everyone knows how to type on their phone. The utility of dictating to it, however, is not as obvious. Typing on a smartphone, while less than ideal, is familiar and doesn’t need to be learned. When you want to send a text message, you’re generally not looking to practice dictating a text message. But I suspect that this will change. The technology is just about good enough already. Typing on a tiny keyboard, touchscreen or physical, is still annoying enough that the utility of dictation is likely to become increasingly apparent.

If I really wanted to put my money where my mouth is I suppose I should have dictated this post. But that highlights another challenge of dictation: I work in a variety of environments and while I don’t mind looking a little crazy, I do need to respect those around me.

Jammin’ with the World

January 19th, 2015 •

I thought I’d share a couple of fun internet music toys that I’ve recently come across. I’ve long been interested in instruments with strong constraints. In fact, I wrote my dissertation about that very topic. The trend in the industry is to pile features upon features so I’m always interested in seeing how others choose to strip things down.

I think its fair to say that both Plink and PollySynth are more like musical toys or games than they are like serious musical instruments, but that’s a philosophical difference I’d like to set aside for another day (why post today what you can put off posting until tomorrow?). That said, they are both great examples of designs with a minimal set of features that invite playful interaction by an audience of varying ability levels.

Both systems drop the user into an active room, (potentially) filled with random strangers with whom to share a jam session. In this case, anonymity adds to the experience. Unlike the cesspools that are most online communities, there is no opportunity to troll here because there is no opportunity for verbal communication. I suppose you could come in and purposefully play in an annoying way, but that’s pretty minor trolling. Basically, players are free to have fun and make music with others without judgment. This is very liberating; if you’ve ever seen a beginning improvisation class then you know how stifling the pressure to avoid sounding foolish can be.

Since you are playing with others, however, a player may well develop some feeling of responsibility to the group. This is a good thing. I’ve found that even in these simple and somewhat silly platforms, there was a drive to try to contribute meaningfully to the collaboration. Some people are clearly just messing around, but at times I could sense that I was really interacting with the other participants. I suspect that safe places like these would be great even for complete novices to first experience the joy of playing with others. This could lead novices to explore the next level by learning an instrument and playing with friends.

Plink

Of the two, Plink is closer to creating “normal” music. The player selects from a series of different timbres represented by a row of multi-colored squares along the right side of the interface. The rest of the space is devoted to the play area. It’s divided into horizontal channels each representing a note in a pentatonic scale. This is a natural choice for a beginner’s tool since it avoids (more or less) the potential for “wrong” sounding notes.

Little bubbles representing the rhythm that will be produced flow backwards from the player’s cursor. There’s a kick drum sound on the beat to keep a sense of time going. Clicking the mouse will cause a melody to be played in a 16th note pattern on the pitch corresponding to the channel that is clicked. This works even better with the touch interface on the iPad. On a touch interface, one can play the instrument almost like a keyboard.

Plink by DinahMoe

With the tight constraints of rhythm and pitch, the player is presented with an extremely shallow learning curve so players of all levels can get up and running right away. There is plenty of room within these constraints to explore the instrument, with the different timbres provided each giving a slightly different experience.

PollySynth

PollySynth is a hybrid web/mobile instrument. First you log in to one of the “rooms” in your desktop web browser. This is where you will see the avatars representing yourself and other participants, and where the sound is generated. You then visit the same room on your mobile device, which becomes the controller for your sound/avatar.

PollySynth takes a different approach than Plink, enforcing fewer assumptions about how the music should be created. Unlike Plink, it doesn’t restrict the rhythm or scale but instead provides a simple synthesizer for the user to explore. Since the average user is going to be unfamiliar with the concepts and terminology of synthesizers, PollySynth’s challenge is to create an interface that invites exploration without being scary or opaque.

PollySynth 2014-08-20 at 11.59.44 AM

The creators came up with a clever solution to this challenge: don’t label anything. The lower half of the controller contains a smiling pair of eighth notes. This large X-Y area, the user will quickly discover, is how you play notes and control the pitch. The upper half of the interface contains 8 buttons and two sliders, all unlabeled. What do they do? Press one and see! Though someone experienced with traditional synthesizers will be able to easily give names to these parameters (I won’t provide spoilers), the lack of labels encourages novice users to explore and use their ears to play, and avoids scaring them off with terms like LFO (oops, I spoilered it a little). The result is a simple noise synth that is fun to explore.

Adapting

September 3rd, 2014 •

I don’t have much to add to the discussion of Amazon vs Hachette, since this issue has been well covered by people much more knowledgeable than I about the publishing industry. While it’s easy to get emotional and take sides, John Scalzi, who tends to be very thoughtful and rational in his analyses, has a good, balanced take on this complicated issue. I also recommend Christopher Wright’s take. He too dumps a little cold water on anyone who would see one side or the other as “evil” in this situation.

The case does, however, bring to mind a bigger issue related to this fight: the desire of publishers to set their own prices. In general, the big publishers have been fighting to keep prices higher, and this strikes me as short-sighted.

First, as Wright points out, ebooks both cost less to produce and are inherently worth less to a consumer than are physical books. You can’t lend them1, and there is no second-hand market on which you can sell them after you’ve finished them. So on the face of it, keeping prices of ebooks so close to the hardback price seems inapropriate. I will acknowledge that keeping prices high for a limited time after release is more reasonable, since new titles are always in greater demand, but I would still argue that prices for ebooks, both at release and after, are on average too high.

But that’s just theory. Hmm, if only there was another creative industry that had gone through a similar struggle in the transition from hard-copy to virtual and could shine some light on what the sales options might be for for this new paradigm…Wait a minute. Inflated prices? Resistance to new technologies? DRM? Ring any bells??

Yes, we’ve been down this road before with the music industry, and how did that work out? It basically trained an entire generation that the value of music is $0.00. Young people in the 1990s were willing put up with the hassle of downloading large files of unknown quality over slow, pre-broadband connections in order to get their music for free. That books are less popular than music would seem to be an unenviable position, yet it appears to be the main advantage the publishing industry has, in that people are far less likely to go through the trouble of stealing books. But now that a generation has grown up doing the bulk of their reading on screens, and so many readers have tablets that are great reading devices, the underground market for ebooks is bound to grow.

So what can publishing learn from this? It’s clear that the music industry is moving, kicking and screaming, to a subscription model. It’s probable that the publishing industry will have to go the same way. But before music downloads were overrun by streaming, there were some experiments in pricing that may be instructive to a publishing industry that is attempting to stave off that inevitability.

As Bezos points out in his letter to readers, since the marginal cost of an ebook is zero, lower prices can mean more profit. Bezos’ statement is, of course, self-serving and thus suspect, but we don’t have to take his word for it. Even though big music publishers aren’t willing to accept it, lowering prices has worked for digital music. When online music service Rhapsody experimented with cutting prices in half, they saw sales triple. That extra 50% in revenue is all profit since the marginal cost of selling a digital track is $0.00.2

The mainstream media industries’ resistance to new technology is not surprising. Entrenched interests have always been slow to adapt. But as technology moves increasingly fast, there is no longer time to wait and see. Adapt or be buried. Everyone loves to write an epitaph.

1 Well, sure you can sort of lend some ebooks, but it’s a hassle and the time restrictions are ridiculous.
2 Or perhaps something like $0.0001

iOS Split Screen Interface

May 30th, 2014 •

John Gruber’s Talk Show discussion with Dan Frommer about how to implement split screen on iOS got me thinking about how this feature could be implemented. A hint could be in how “Open In…” is currently handled. In the “Open In…” feature, apps register as being capable of handing certain types of files. Likewise, an app could register as being capable of split screen mode. Then, from within an app that has this enabled there would be an icon indicating split screen mode (or possibly another menu item in the share menu) that would bring up a grid of capable apps, again like in the “Open In…” feature. Tap on your choice, and the new app opens opposite the app you’re working in.

One can certainly imagine shortcomings in the approach, but perhaps it’s a start.

Perhaps you made a poor design choice if…

October 4th, 2013 •

Sink Urinal

…you have to label your sink to keep people from peeing in it.