Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Indemnification Blues

Posted by midiguru on June 12, 2014

I fuckin’ hate lawyers. Twice this week, I have looked at legal documents that include blanket indemnification clauses. One was a contract presented to freelance writers by one of the magazines for which I’m a semi-regular contributor. The other was a form I might want to fill out and sign, requesting exhibitor space at the local public library.

The contract for freelance writers I don’t propose to comment on at this time. Negotiations are ongoing. Instead, let’s look at the library’s “Display/Exhibit Space Request.”

This document includes the following charming clause: “I agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless, the City of Livermore, its officers, employees, appointive boards and the Livermore Public Library from and against any and all loss, liability, claims, lawsuits, damage or injury of any kind, including, without limitation, claims for monetary loss, intellectual property infringement, property damage, equitable relief, personal injury, or wrongful death, arising out of or in any way connected to the display or exhibit.”

Lawyers are not, by and large, concerned with what is fair, equitable, or just. They are concerned solely and entirely with protecting their clients from legal exposure or liability. That’s what this clause is about. We can be fairly certain it was drafted by someone in the city attorney’s office. I think we can safely conclude that whoever drafted it does not give a flying crap about the local citizens who might want to use the library’s wonderful exhibit space. The attorneys who drafted and signed off on this sentence care only about protecting the city from any sort of financial risk. That’s their job.

The key phrases are “any and all,” “without limitation,” and “in any way connected.” Only a suicidal moron would sign a document containing this kind of language. If you’ve ever exhibited at the library under this policy, then either you haven’t thought it through, or you secretly like the idea that you might end up homeless, or possibly both.

Oh, but what could possibly go wrong? Let’s see if we can think of an example.

Some of the paintings I’m interested in exhibiting (my father’s work) are large. They would be hanging from the wall. So let’s suppose a painting comes loose from its hook, topples outward, and a corner hits a three-year-old child in the eye, causing irreparable damage to the child’s eye. Let’s further suppose that the reason the painting comes loose is due to either a structural defect in the library’s art hanging system, or to the fact that a previous visitor had pulled on the painting to try to get it loose, in an act of vandalism.

I would be liable. I would have to write a huge check to cover both the child’s medical bills and possibly an award for emotional damages, even though I did nothing to contribute to the accident. What’s more, the legal document doesn’t include any language that would require a finding in court that I was at fault. No — the city attorney could offer the child and its family an out-of-court settlement, and I would still have to write the check. That’s what the word “claims” means. If there’s a claim, I have to pay.

Do I feel like fighting city hall? Not this week, thanks. The library’s visitors are the losers in this situation: They will never get to see an exhibit of my father’s work. Vita brevis, ars in dumpstero, as the Romans might have put it.

Posted in politics, society & culture | 2 Comments »

Oh, Henry…

Posted by midiguru on June 9, 2014

I haven’t had any personal contact with Henry (no last name will be revealed here) since 1972, but he showed up on Facebook last year, so he has been seeing my posts there.

Henry was apparently dealt a body blow by a link I posted this morning to a column in Salon. The column deconstructs a column written by conservative pundit George Will, which appeared in the Washington Post. It turns out Henry knows old George — perhaps not entirely surprising, as one of Henry’s chums at Cornell was Francis Fukuyama.

Rather than defend George Will’s opinion piece, which is frankly an indefensible piece of tripe, Henry decided to jump out of the lifeboat and walk across the water by himself. We’ll miss your smiling face, Henry, but I have to say, your reaction is typical of conservatives. Conservatives seem, from my experience on Facebook and elsewhere, to have real difficulty with rational argument. If you point out the flaws in their reasoning, they tend to change the subject, resort to ad hominem attacks, or wrap themselves in a mantle of righteousness and stomp off in a huff.

George Will went out of his way to belittle the idea that rape is a problem on college campuses. He went so far as to suggest that colleges “make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges.” He refers to the “supposed campus epidemic of rape.” Supposed by whom? By delusional liberals, one must assume.

To be sure, the line about victimhood can be read as a more general comment. He may have meant to suggest that the entire liberal movement cultivates and elevates victims. But given the context of this particular column, it’s clear that he feels that a woman who was raped and comes forward to talk to the authorities about it is being “conferred privileges” by the liberals in the academic community.

What sort of privileges these might be, Will does not tell us. One can only hope that he’s raped, and preferably this week, so that he can experience these privileges for himself. Maybe then he’ll be so kind as to share the details with us in a column in the Washington Post.

Will goes out of his way to provide one anecdote about non-consensual sex in college, a story about a young woman who used exceptionally bad judgment: After her boyfriend fell asleep on her bed, she got into her pajamas and crawled in beside him. When he woke up and initiated sex, she protested. He desisted but then started in again. According to the anecdote, she was too tired to climb out of bed, so she let him do what he wanted.

Because this is the only anecdote about an incident that Will provides, the conclusion is inescapable: He’s inviting his readers to consider all sexual assaults on campus as being this trivial or ambiguous. He has nothing whatever to tell us about the emotional ordeal of actual rape victims, either during the rape or afterward when they report it to college authorities and are demeaned, belittled, or ignored.

One might be forgiven for concluding from his sharing of this anecdote that Will doesn’t think there are any actual rapes on college campuses — but he does admit in passing that, according to one statistic about one university, as many as 2.9 percent of college women may have been raped during their four years as undergraduates. He even admits that that number is “too high,” but when it comes to compassion for the victims or suggestions about how the problem might be addressed, he is entirely silent. A better interpretation, then, is that he knows women are being raped — he just doesn’t care.

In my initial Facebook post, I characterized his opinion this way: “Rich white men should be able to put their dick wherever they like, at any time, without fear of being criticized for it. Shut up, bitches!” Based on a careful reading of his column, I see no reason to revise that.

Will’s observations on this topic are (ostensibly, at least) by way of illustrating what he sees as a larger systemic problem. “Academia’s progressivism,” he informs us, “has rendered it intellectually defenseless now that progressivism’s achievement, the regulatory state, has decided it is academia’s turn to be broken to government’s saddle.” We’re being invited to pity the poor colleges, who are being subjected to onerous and unneeded government regulation due to their own embrace of progressivism.

There’s a reason why colleges and universities are hotbeds of progressive politics: It’s because most college professors, and most of their students, understand that conservatism is intellectually bankrupt and morally repugnant. Will’s own column is a shining illustration of why it’s morally repugnant. Here we have a leading conservative who objects when the government tries to protect young women from being raped. Why? Because the government shouldn’t try to protect women from being raped. That’s what he’s telling us.

I’m perfectly willing to admit that government regulation is sometimes heavy-handed and misguided. There are also plenty of examples of the opposite: places where we need a lot more government regulation than we have now. But by focusing on this particular example of government regulation, George will gives us a stunning example of just how vicious and insensitive the conservative movement has become.

I guess I’ll always wonder what Henry would have said about that.

Posted in politics | 2 Comments »

Simply Smashing

Posted by midiguru on June 7, 2014

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of the leading thinkers at the beginning of the scientific revolution. Bacon recommended forcing nature to give up its secrets; the Latin term he used was natura vexata (nature vexed).

This technique is immensely useful, of course. But it’s not always the right approach. If you want to know what’s going on in the chemistry of a living cell, for instance, you can squish or burst the cell, thereby killing it, and isolate the various chemical compounds that you find. Having done this, you have a pretty good idea what the cell is made of. What you won’t know is how those compounds operate within the cell while it’s alive.

The interior of a cell is an immensely complicated place. Millions of chemical interactions are taking place every second. While any given molecular interaction may be random — either those two molecules bump into one another, or they don’t — the process as a whole is regulated in an ongoing manner that is both subtle and multifaceted. The process, and its regulation, is what we call life.

Most of what we know about subatomic physics is as a result of applying the techniques of natura vexata. We fire particles at one another at incredibly high speeds, causing them to smash into one another. We’ve learned a lot about subatomic particles in this way. But here’s today’s random thought: Might we be entirely missing how these particles behave in more ordinary circumstances?

The conventional scientific view is, more or less, “Well, they’re inert. They’re just dumb particles. They have no complex features.” But at one time the interior of a living cell was thought of in pretty much that same way, wasn’t it? Microscopes that could inspect the detailed inner structure of cells hadn’t yet been developed. As far as scientists could determine, the cell was just full of goo.

It’s a bit hard to see how the ordinary, unvexed behavior of subatomic particles could be investigated. They’re just too small. When I read about cell biology, though, I find it hard to escape the feeling that something is going on in this broth of molecular activity that we don’t yet understand.

At one time protein molecules were thought of as being rigid structures, a bit like Tinkertoy models assembled out of sticks and little spheres. Atoms were thought of as rather like little tiny billiard balls, bouncing off of one another according to strict mathematical rules. Today we know that’s not a good description of protein molecules. Protein molecules are wiggly. They’re constantly changing shape.

Of course, those shape changes must be entirely random, right? Molecules are just collections of tiny billiard balls, after all, tugging on and bouncing off of one another according to rigid mathematical laws. The idea that the molecules themselves might have an awareness of their surroundings, that they might respond in variable ways as a result of factors that we haven’t yet discovered … that would be just spiritualist nonsense.

I’m not a fan of spiritualist nonsense. I’m not trying to reintroduce the elan vital. But it does seem to me, as a layman, that the level of complexity within a living cell might be due not only to a few billion years of evolution but also to complexities in the behavior of protons, neutrons, and electrons that we haven’t yet discovered, or even imagined.

Posted in random musings | Leave a Comment »

Too Many Synthesizers

Posted by midiguru on June 6, 2014

I’m perpetually looking for opportunities to write about synthesizers and related technologies. Not just because I love playing with new toys (though that’s part of it). I also like letting other people know what’s worth checking out. Maybe along the way I can give a manufacturer or two a tiny nudge in a good direction, or improve a deserving company’s sales figures ever so slightly.

Trouble is, the outlets for product reviews are pretty jammed up. Today I was talking to a magazine editor (not the editor of Keyboard or Electronic Musician) about product reviews, and he made it clear that his publication has the same problems they do. The advertisers pretty much demand coverage for their latest offerings. Meanwhile, the page count has shrunk drastically over the past decade or two.

Just in the software realm, I’d guess there are at least five times as many new music programs today as there were 15 years ago. The magazines have maybe half as much page space as they had then.

Musicians are the losers in this equation. We’re forced to base our buying decisions on three-sentence “reviews” in the online retailers’ pages, reviews written by who knows who, with who knows what agenda or level of ignorance. Yes, a video tutorial on a product can help a lot … if you can find a good one. Even so, there’s a glut of product and a shortage of solid information about it all.

Tonight I’ve been looking at Oscilab, a very forward-looking iPad app from 2Beat. I don’t even feel like pitching a review to Keyboard or EM, because neither of them has responded to my last few pitches. Not because the editors are rude (though they’re certainly overworked). The core problem is that the magazine itself doesn’t have the bandwidth.

A few years ago, Nick Batsdorf started a magazine called Virtual Instruments. Great idea, but it folded after a couple of years. I’m guessing, not enough ad dollars were coming in. The magazine was clearly needed, but the economy wouldn’t support it.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now I can go back to playing with Oscilab.

Posted in music, technology, writing | Leave a Comment »

Mad for the Pad

Posted by midiguru on June 6, 2014

I’m pretty familiar with a wide range of music software, especially in Windows, but a lot of it is cross-platform, so the Mac scene is not too different. In the past two years, though, there has been a total explosion of music apps for the iPad.

I bought an iPad last fall, but honestly I haven’t done a whole lot with it. Now that I’m starting work on the revised edition of my synth programming book, I obviously need to learn what’s going on in the iPad world.

It’s jaw-dropping.

The basics of sound design are much the same, of course. Any number of apps give you ADSRs and LFOs. What’s new, and needs to be covered in the book, are the fresh ideas in user interfaces and performance control. Plus system-level concepts such as Audiobus and Core MIDI, of course.

iPad developers are forced to deal with a small screen, so they have to be clever about the UI. At the same time, the multi-touch interface opens up new ways to play (or just play with) the sounds.

The installed user base is huge. As a result, the pricing structure is very different from that for desktop/laptop software. Many of your customers won’t be that familiar with traditional methods of synthesis and music production, so you can present them with something quite simple, and they’ll like it.

Not all of these apps will be around next year. The scene is a bit Wild West at the moment; it hasn’t stabilized yet. This makes it tough for a book author, who has to try to write in a way that will still be at least marginally relevant five years down the road.

The good news is, I like playing with new toys. Alesis is shipping me an iO Dock II, so I’ll be able to send MIDI into the iPad and get 24-bit audio out in a convenient way.

Slide the food under the door.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

Power Tools Update

Posted by midiguru on May 22, 2014

Good news, and you’re reading it here first: Hal Leonard has agreed to do a new edition of Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming. The book is now ten years old, and continues to sell (though not in large quantities). A lot has happened in music technology during the past decade, so it’s time for an update.

Or rather, a floor-to-ceiling rewrite. The basics haven’t changed: An ADSR is still an ADSR, and the durability of that concept is almost frightening. But enormous progress has been made in granular synthesis and additive synthesis. Software tools like Reason are light-years beyond where they were ten years ago. The iPad has emerged as a viable music tool, though of course the form factor makes it a wee bit awkward for serious work. Arpeggiators and step sequencers were barely mentioned in the first edition, but they’ve become an important production tool. Percussion software is big. And on the hardware side, there’s a resurgence of interest in modular analog instruments. Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of territory to be covered.

The new edition won’t come with a bind-in CD. Downloads are now the preferred delivery medium for bonus content. But that’s good news too. I’ll be able to do a few videos, even. And the new edition will have a beefed-up page count.

I don’t know yet what the release date will be, but look for it in October or November.

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

Roll Your Own Theory

Posted by midiguru on May 19, 2014

Last night I started musing about how one might develop a coherent theory of harmony (that is, scales and chords) for a tuning with 31 equal-tempered steps per octave. This tuning, which we can call 31et or 31edo for short, has some very nice properties, but describing those properties in terms of conventional music theory quickly leads into a morass of confusing terminology.

Our terms for intervals, for example (second, third, fourth, and, for that matter, octave), are firmly rooted in the diatonic tradition — the white keys on the piano, in other words. But 31edo provides some scale modes that are not related to the diatonic modes.

If you hang around online, as I do, with people who do microtonal music, you’ll start hearing a lot of very specialized terminology. Things like “porcupine” and “MOS.” Might other theorists have come up with ideas that I could borrow to describe scales and chords in 31edo? This morning I jaunted over to the xenharmonic wiki to find out.

It soon became apparent that microtonal theory is an intellectual playground, or if you prefer a smoking parlor, in which everybody gets to roll their own. And sometimes the tobacco crumbs leak out the sides. Here, lightly edited, is an attempt to describe MOS, which stands for “moment of symmetry”:

“A Moment of Symmetry is a scale that consists of (1) a generator (of any size, for example a 3/2 or a fifth in 12 equal temperament) which is repeatedly superimposed but reduced within the (2) Interval of Equivalence (of any size, for example most commonly an octave), often called a period, (3) where each scale degree or scale unit will be represented by no more than two sizes and two sizes only (Large = L and small = s).”

The first part of that is clear enough. We’re going to choose an interval of some size and stack it on top of itself, periodically folding it back down so that it stays within the octave (or tritave, or whatever). But what exactly does item (3) in the definition tell us? How can a scale degree be represented by a size? How, indeed, can a single scale degree be represented by two sizes, as that sentence seems to say?

I suspect this writer is trying to tell us that we’re going to end up with two sizes of steps in our scale. If we look at a conventional pentatonic scale on a piano keyboard, for instance, we’ll find that some of the intervals in it are major seconds, and some are minor thirds.

Really, we have two problems here. The first is, there are hundreds of people developing their own concepts and terminology, most of which apply only to their own music. The second is, they don’t always explain their concepts very clearly.

Can all of this intellectual ferment be distilled down into anything useful? I have my doubts.

Posted in microtonal, music | Leave a Comment »

More About Skeletons

Posted by midiguru on May 11, 2014

In; reading Nicholas Cook’s A Guide to Musical Analysis, it strikes me that the analysts whose work he describes (such as Schenker and Reti) have made a fundamental mistake; they’ve attempted to apply their methods across the board to all music. As both an occasional composer of not-especially-profound music and an avid listener to all sorts of music, it strikes me that a method of analysis that works well for one genre or one piece of music may not work at all for another. Frank Zappa’s music is extraordinary, but one would hardly expect it to show many common features with a Haydn string quartet. Not only that, but a method of analysis that purported to find such commonalities would be deeply suspect.

Reti’s probing search for motivic unities in Beethoven is a case in point. Those unities are unquestionably there — sometimes, when Beethoven chose to put them there (and perhaps sometimes when he was guided by his unconscious and didn’t know he was putting them there). One of my favorite examples is the melody that begins at bar 75 in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony. Everybody knows that the first subject of the Fifth Symphony recurs in the third movement. But if you look at bar 75 in the first movement, you’ll find it hidden on the weak beats in a legato line. Unquestionably, Beethoven did that on purpose. But as Cook points out, Reti’s methods can far too easily reveal supposed motivic unities that aren’t really there at all.

Just for kicks, I had a stab at doing a Schenkerian analysis of the D minor fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Now, that doesn’t mean the fugue has no large-scale tonal structure. It quite clearly moves up from D minor to A minor (the dominant) at the halfway point, almost exactly as if it were a binary form piece. But those upward leaps of a sixth, which are so important to this fugue, are difficult to analyze using a Schenkerian method, as are the fugal entrances, which are pretty much all over the place. There’s a lot going on, so much that trying to find a straightforward linear analysis would be perilous.

What I did discover, while examining the piece analytically, was that after reaching the halfway point, Bach stated the fugue subject in inversion five times in a row. I knew it was inverted in some of its statements, but I hadn’t noticed while playing it that the inversions were deployed so consistently. His gigues often have this form: a three-voice fugue in which the fugue subject is inverted in the second half of the binary form. Clearly, he was inverting the subject of this fugue at this spot quite intentionally. But it would be silly to assume that he invariably used the same pattern, or anything like it, in every piece, or even in every fugue. Composers don’t work that way.

I happen to know the cello suites pretty well, so I’m aware of Bach’s intentions in several of them. The opening movement of the Second Suite is a fine example. This movement is in 3/4, and the second beat is very heavily emphasized throughout. In 38 of the 63 measures, the second beat is either the highest note in the measure, the lowest note in the measure, or longer than the notes surrounding it (as in bars 40 and 42). In a couple of other measures (49 and 53) the note on the second beat is an E-flat, creating a momentary Neapolitan harmony, and in 57 and 58 the second beat is emphasized by being the top of a rising figure, though the third beat here is even higher. So really, 40 or 42 of the measures out of 63 have this feature.

Neither Schenker’s method nor Reti’s would reveal it, though Leonard Meyer’s analysis of strong and weak beats using the terms of Greek prosody (iamb, dactyl, etc.) would. But would Meyer’s approach tell us anything about the C major prelude from Book I, which is an uninterrupted stream of 16th-notes? Probably not.

All I’m saying is, don’t insist on adherence to any particular method. Just notice what’s in the music.

 

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Skeletons

Posted by midiguru on May 11, 2014

A hundred years ago or thereabouts, a fellow named Heinrich Schenker developed a method for analyzing the structure of pieces of classical music. His method, which is known as Schenkerian analysis, is of some academic importance — and that’s a shame, because it’s stupid.

What Schenker did was attempt to describe the structure of pieces of music in harmonic terms by progressively stripping away all of the surface features, until what was left was, in every case — big surprise! — a I-V-I progression. The fact that analyzing music in this way removes all of its interesting, memorable, and emotionally affecting features seems not to have bothered Schenker in the least. Nor was he concerned that his methods worked best when applied to German classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, and poorly or not at all when applied to other kinds of music. As far as Schenker was concerned, those other kinds of music were simply inferior because they failed to follow his template, which he was sure was a universal truth.

I’ve been reading a book by Nicholas Cook called A Guide to Musical Analysis. He starts with Schenker, but I’m looking forward to getting past the opening chapter and on to something that may make more sense. (If you think “musical analysis” ought to refer to the study of shows like Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, you’re right. The correct term would be “music analysis.” But we’ll give Cook a mulligan on that one.)

Cook is not, I hasten to add, a committed Schenkerian. I got a chuckle out of this passage, on page 54: “…Schenkerian analysis of Schubert’s Moment Musical, Op. 94, No. 1, suggests that the first and last formal sections of this piece — an extended ABA — have quite different harmonic and linear functions, even though the one is the exact repetition of the other. Some critics of Schenkerian analysis have been worried by such discrepancies between surface form and analytical interpretation….”

This passage put me in mind of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” a story by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges’s premise is that Menard, a modern author (whom Borges invented for the purpose) devoted years of effort to writing a couple of chapters of Don Quixote, not by copying it but by a deliberate process of creative inspiration. Far from producing these chapters by accident, Menard set out to duplicate the Quixote, and succeeded.

“Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical,” Borges tells us, “but the second is almost infinitely richer.” And on the next page, “The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard — quite foreign, after all — suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.”

Borges was pulling our leg, of course, but he was also making a point about how we interpret texts. In light of that, there may be some justification, however tenuous, for that bizarre Schenkerian analysis of Schubert. Insofar as there’s any justification at all for Schenkerian analysis, which is rather doubtful.

Posted in music | 2 Comments »

A Hit Before Your Mother Was Born

Posted by midiguru on May 8, 2014

Lately I’ve been recording new and slightly twisted arrangements of Beatles tunes, using Reason 7.1. This is great fun — they’re memorable tunes, and they inspire me with creative ideas. “Day Tripper” works well in 5/8 time, for instance.

But yesterday, as I was putting the Magical Mystery Tour LP on the turntable, it occurred to me that that LP is 45 years old. That’s a hell of a long time in pop music. When I bought that LP in 1969, a 45-year-old phonograph record would have been produced in 1924. That’s not quite before my mother was born — she was born in 1922. But 1924 was the year when 23-year-old Louis Armstrong left King Oliver’s Chicago band and started his own career. That fact puts the Beatles in some kind of historical perspective, I suppose.

Meanwhile, on the other channel, I’ve been looking at a bunch of new music software. Some of it I’ll be reviewing for Keyboard, so I won’t give details here, but my list of possibles includes a new Kontakt library called REV (the samples are mostly played backwards, or can be), a convolution synthesis program called Galaxy X that runs on the Magix sampler platform, a BT-style slicing and dicing rhythm machine from iZotope called BeatTweaker, and Glitchmachines Scope, a modular VST effects processor that would really rather generate off-the-wall noises on its own than process whatever signals you send it.

The connection between these two activities is that time (and music) marches on. I won’t say that I don’t understand what these extremely weird noise-makers are good for, because I’m not that far out of the loop. But I will say that they’re challenging me to think about music in new and different ways. None of them is very suitable for a Beatles mash-up, that’s clear.

Probably the challenge I’m looking at is deeper than what Armstrong would have run into had he tried playing a Beatles tune in the final years of his life. I mean, chords and melodies hadn’t changed that drastically between 1924 and 1969, though they were being interpreted in very different ways. With today’s noise-makers, though, chords and melody are almost an irrelevance. The entire aesthetic basis of music has changed.

We’re living in interesting times. As Joni Mitchell said, “Something’s lost, but something’s gained, in living every day.” And then there’s Thomas Dolby: “We’re living through the break-up, commercial break-up, here it comes again!”

Posted in music, technology | Leave a Comment »

 
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