Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

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.


Posted in music | Leave a Comment »


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 theĀ 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 »

The Big Picture

Posted by midiguru on April 27, 2014

Physicists have pretty well established that the way the universe works depends on the values of a small bunch of numerical constants. The strength of gravity, for instance. If gravity were slightly stronger, stars would all collapse into neutron stars, so there would be no planets with life. If it were slightly weaker, stars would never have formed at all; the entire universe would be just a cloud of drifting gas.

That’s just the example that’s easiest to understand. There are other similar numbers. When you look at the big picture, it does appear that our universe has been fine-tuned at the factory to allow our sort of life to emerge.

This is not an argument for the existence of a god, however. If our universe did have a Grand Designer, there are several possibilities, most of which don’t involve anything that would resemble traditional conceptions of “God.” The Grand Designer might have died billions of years ago, for instance. Or might have drifted off to work on some other project, and might have no concern at all with the fate of this one.

Nonetheless, physicists are confronted with a puzzle: Why are things the way they are? One suggestion holds that there’s an infinite supply of universes. At the beginning of each universe, the values of these physical constants are established in a random manner. Most universes, then, would be devoid of anything resembling life. Our own universe might be part of a tiny minority — but only in that tiny minority will intelligent beings evolve who can look around and say, “Wow! Look how perfectly these numbers are set up!” This is called the weak anthropic principle. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in evolution, random musings | 4 Comments »

The School of Velocity

Posted by midiguru on April 20, 2014

I have a couple of advanced cello students (high-school age) whom I’d like to prepare for symphony work. They can already play 95% of what a classical composer calls for — but then there’s that other five percent. In a typical cello part, you get a lot of whole-notes, a lot of easy quarter-notes, and then the composer throws you a terrifying run in 16th-notes. And of course the conductor is going to take the piece at a hair-raising tempo. No mercy.

I haven’t yet found any exercise books that could help students prepare for these passages. (And the Internet Cello Society forum, where I’ve posted questions in the past, appears to be dead.)

Yes, there are books of etudes with two-page etudes markedĀ allegro that are entirely in 16th-notes. Tricky ones, too. But I’m not quite merciless enough to ask a student to master an entire two-page etude and play it flawlessly at a breakneck tempo. Anyway, that’s not how orchestral cello parts work. Typically, your terrifying run is going to be from two to six measures long, and then you can go back to breezing through the quarter-notes. Also, composers of etudes are fond of tossing finger-twisters at players, which is fine, but most composers of symphonic music don’t toss in finger-twisters merely for the sake of challenging the players. They’re more likely to ask you to run up and down a scale pattern in the key of A-flat. Or D-flat. Or F-sharp.

For those of you who aren’t cellists, perhaps I should explain that in the key of A-flat, you can’t use the open A and D strings. In the key of F-sharp, you can’t use any open strings at all. The cellist’s hand spans only three scale notes, and the strings are tuned a fifth apart. As a result, any scale that doesn’t use open strings forces you to shift up or down the fingerboard to a new hand position after three notes.

If the tricky passage is, let’s say, four measures of 16th-notes, that’s 64 notes. Divide by 3 and you’ll find that you’ll need to do as many as 20 rapid and precise shifts, often while crossing from one string to another, at odd rhythmic spots, and usually to or from notes like D-flat and A-sharp that your intermediate method book studiously avoided. Even fairly advanced method books don’t typically use double-sharps or double-flats — but composers don’t hesitate to do so.

So yeah, here’s another cello method book I ought to write.

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Virtual Snapshots

Posted by midiguru on April 16, 2014

Time for a tiny bit of boasting. In the course of working on my upcoming much-too-large text adventure game (“The Only Possible Prom Dress,” look for it before the end of the year, I hope), I decided the player character was going to need a digital camera. Implemented as a cell phone, obviously.

Using Eric Eve’s adv3Lite library for TADS 3, I managed to create a cell phone with which you can snap a photo of any object in the game, and then read a list of the photos you’ve taken. (Because reading is all you can do in a text game — there are no images.) This is kind of cool, and it’s less than obvious how to do it. Dynamically created objects and all that.

The game, if it’s ever finished, is going to be a sequel to “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” my first game, which was released back in 1999. Same location, but greatly elaborated. Similar plot premise. Lots of new characters. A few of the puzzles are related to those in the first game, but most are completely new.

Posted in Interactive Fiction | Leave a Comment »

Life Is a Brewery

Posted by midiguru on April 15, 2014

I’m re-reading a couple of science books I read a few years ago — The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean and Microcosm by Carl Zimmer. Both are about cell biology, and while they’re addressed to the intelligent layman, they’re not gee-whiz pop science books. They really do present a fairly clear picture of what happens inside cells, and how we’ve learned about it all. Kean is far too fond of anthropomorphizing; his descriptions of DNA and other molecules give them very human intentions, and that’s bogus. In reality, the molecules are just bumping around at random, but the process happens so quickly that the results (one molecule fitting into another so as to catalyze a reaction) operate as if they were intentional.

Cells don’t reproduce sexually. They sometimes swap genetic material with one another, but that’s not quite the same thing. Cells reproduce by dividing in two. And no new cells are ever assembled from raw molecular ingredients — that hasn’t happened for billions of years, and may in fact have happened only once. All of the cells in all of the animals and plants that are alive today have arisen through the splitting of previously existing cells. And from the point of view of a cell (if we can speak of such a thing), in splitting it has budded off a daughter cell. A daughter cell isn’t a new-born: It’s still the same cell as before.

This fact has a dizzying consequence: That very first cell that somehow assembled itself 3.8 billion years ago is still alive. It’s you. It’s me. It’s all of life on Earth. With the possible exception of viruses, but I’ve read a theory that viruses evolved from the breakdown of more complete cells. They aren’t a separate creation, they’re just efficient parasites. Be that as it may, it’s humbling to realize that every single cell in your body is 3.8 billion years old. For the last 550 million years or so it was continuously an egg cell; each time an embryo differentiated, the cell that became you was one that remained an egg cell. Before that, you were just swimming around, being a cell.

That’s mind-blowing enough, but once we peer inside cells to discover what makes them tick. what we find is a vast array of chemical reactions, a constantly bubbling stew of molecules bumping against one another and catalyzing reactions. All behavior — all human behavior and all of the other behavior of every living thing on the planet — is ultimately a chemical process that occurs when molecules interact. We can’t even say that behavior is the result of chemical reactions. Behavior IS chemical reactions. Unimaginably complex chemical reactions, to be sure, but there’s nothing else going on. It’s all proteins and methyl groups and whatnot bumping into one another. That’s how you get Shakespeare; it’s also how you get a common garden slug. In fact, many of the same chemical processes that happened in Shakespeare also happen in a slug.

Of course, molecules pass in and out of cells all the time. A cell that couldn’t pass molecules in and out through its membrane would soon be dead. No cell is an island. Once you realize this, if you twist the zoom control all the way out and look at life on Earth as a whole, what you discover is that life on Earth is all one ongoing chemical reaction. It has been going on for 3.8 billion years, constantly stirred by energy from the sun. If we say, “That’s a redwood tree,” or, “That’s a sonnet by Shakespeare,” what we’re doing is giving a name to some small part of this single enormous chemical reaction.

This is humbling, but it’s also freeing. You and I are nothing but burbling masses of chemicals. The molecules are going to do whatever they’re going to do. Nobody is in control, so there’s no blame. Just relax and burble along.

Posted in evolution, random musings | Leave a Comment »

Tiny Everything

Posted by midiguru on April 13, 2014

A couple of months ago I learned one or two pieces in Book 4 of Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. And recently one of the people on the Xenharmonic Alliance II group on Facebook posted a link to a really nice piece for solo piano (digital, of course) in 17-note equal temperament.

Inspired by that piece, I figured I’d try my hand at a Mikrokosmos-style piece — short, melodic, and harmonically modern, in 17et. It only took a few hours to whip something up:

I enjoyed the process so much that a few days later I tried again:

In case you’re curious: No, these weren’t played in real time. There’s a lot of hand-editing of note lengths and velocities, quantizing, trying different harmonies by dragging the notes up and down, and manually adjusting the tempo here and there.

If I do more of these, I’m going to have to call the series “Tiny Everything,” so the first piece needs its own name. How about “Antic”? The second piece, with those heavy minor chords in the lower register, seems to be called “Gloom.”

I’m still foodling with the question of how best to notate a 17-note scale on a conventional five-line staff. Or even whether to bother. If you look at the Wikipedia article on 17et, you’ll find Easley Blackwood’s method. Easley obviously put a lot of thought into questions of this sort, but I find it odd that his chromatic scale zigzags. The first three notes, for instance, are C, D-flat, and then C-sharp. Also, with his method the interval of a neutral third (which divides the perfect fifth evenly) is spelled either as an augmented second or as a diminished fourth, never as a third. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in microtonal, music | 1 Comment »


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