What Goes Around

I still have a fairly large collection of LPs. Also a turntable that works. God knows how old the stylus is, or where I’d find a replacement, but it still sounds good. After a few years in storage the gears were a little gummy, but after I played a couple of records it smoothed out. It spins just fine now.

So I’m listening to a 1987 album by Cabaret Voltaire called Code. It’s not unlike Kraftwerk, but with a dark and nasty edge. Very clean ’80s electronics — punchy drums, analog string machine, sampled vocal clips. The sonorities are nicely transparent; you can hear everything that’s going on. It’s all muscle and gristle, no flab.

I liked this album when it came out, haven’t listened to it in probably 20 years, but I still like it. This kind of stuff is my roots. Well, this and Patrick O’Hearn and Gentle Giant and Haydn string quartets. There are other albums I love (Jon Hassell’s early LPs come to mind, I know they’re on the shelf somewhere, gotta put the records in alphabetical order so I can find things) that I don’t think influenced me much, even though I was knocked out by them.

Eighties-era synth pop, though, I can see how to do what they’re doing. I’ve got the technology to do it, and my mind likes doing those things.

What you do musically doesn’t have to be new to be good. It just has to be good. You can draw on anything and everything, whatever rings your chimes, be it Couperin or Zappa, Brahms or Ellington, Stravinsky or the Residents. Throw it all in the pot and stir until simmering.

Last night I was listening to a CD of synthesizer music that I recorded 20 years ago. Haven’t really listened to it in years, so I was amazed by how good it sounds. The technology I used was primitive by today’s standards, but certainly adequate. What impressed me most (if I can admit to being Read more

Say What?

Right now I’m listening to some electronic music. It seems to be free improv by a group called the Hub. It’s streaming from Scot Gresham-Lancaster’s site. I like it — there’s plenty of color, plenty of variety. But does it embody any sort of human meaning, other than, “Ooh, listen to the crazy sounds”?

This is not a trivial question. Meaning, in linguistics, arises from a combination of semantics (what words mean) and syntax (how the words are organized into phrases and sentences). It strikes me that free improv has semantics, but no syntax. That is, individual sounds may be quite evocative, but their juxtaposition is higgledy-piggledy. Free improv is like a stream of words that are not joined into coherent sentences. It’s babbling.

To be sure, some people babble more entertainingly than others.

On a strictly social level, I’m inclined to say, “If you don’t care enough about your music to fix it in some reproducible form, then why should I care enough about it to listen to it?” A recording is, to be sure, a fixed, reproducible form. I don’t mean that the music has to be notated. But let’s say you faithfully record 20 hours of free improv. If you then choose one hour to release to the public (or edit together one hour by combining bits of all of the recordings), on what basis are you choosing?

I would suggest that you’ll probably choose (or assemble) a recording in which something resembling syntax is evident. You’ll choose the performance that has the most nearly coherent structure and phrasing.

This fact suggests to me that maybe you ought to be thinking more about structure and phrasing in the first place, before you go onstage.

John Cage, who in some sense was the founding father of free improv, said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is music.” That’s very Zen. I would respond, “You have nothing to say and so I am not listening, and that is music too.” If you want it to be meaningful, then figure out how to make it meaningful! If you don’t care whether it’s meaningful or not, then please don’t be surprised if nobody cares about your babbling.


I know a few things about music, but there’s a lot that I don’t know. I’d like to be able to hang with a few people who are more knowledgeable than I, and who have time to share a few insights. I’d also like to hang with a few people who are on paths similar to my own, for mutual support and encouragement.

Nice idea. But it’s not going to happen in Livermore, I can tell you that. If there is anybody in town who even owns a synthesizer or a computer-based music production setup, how would I find them? There’s no store here in town that sells electronic music gear. There are no clubs where electronic music is played. There are no university music departments where it’s taught.

So tonight I’ve been poking around on the Internet, looking for long-distance peers. That’s pretty discouraging too.

The first thing I notice is that there’s very little discussion of the music itself. I watched a Howard Jones interview in which he talked about sending his Moog Prodigy in to be repaired, and read an interview with a couple of guys in Seattle who are building hardware. It’s easy to talk about gear.

I found a couple of sites with music I could listen to. Most of it bad, some of it not too bad. No idea who the artists are. A lot of the electronic music that I’m seeing on the Web is dance music. Dance music interests me slightly more than clipping my toenails.

I’m going to keep looking.

The CDs Are Ready!

After chewing my nails for a couple of weeks, I’m happy to report that the box of new CDs arrived today. The Murmuring Shell of Time is now available! As are the few remaining copies of my first CD, Light’s Broken Speech Revived, which is destined soon to be a collector’s item. Details on how to order your copies are to be found on the music page at MusicWords.

The only bummer is, when I placed the order (very convenient … did it all online) I forgot to click on the button for shrinkwrap. But that just means a little less environmental pollution, right? You were going to take the shrinkwrap off and throw it away, so I saved you the trouble.

More details coming soon….

In the Dark

“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

I had seen this quote attributed to Sir Arthur Eddington, but this seems to have been a mistake. It was J. B. S. Haldane, and what he actually wrote was, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Eddington was an astronomer and astrophysicist, Haldane an evolutionary biologist.

At the moment Eddington would have been more apropos. This line came to mind because I’ve been reading a bit about dark matter. Or perhaps I should say, I’ve been reading a bit about the theory that proposes the existence of dark matter. After explaining it (in vague and probably inaccurate terms), I’m going to give myself a pat on the back, so put on your wading boots and we’ll get started.

The problem faced by astrophysicists and cosmologists is, galaxies aren’t rotating the way they’re supposed to.

The law of gravitation (which was worked out by Sir Isaac Newton and later tweaked by Einstein) tells us that the further you are from a mass, the weaker the force of gravity with which that mass pulls on you. The force varies inversely with the square of the distance.

If you (“you” being a planet) are in orbit around a star, the further you are from the star, the weaker the star’s gravity. In consequence, you travel more slowly in your orbit. This can be clearly seen in our solar system. The outer planets take a lot longer to travel around the sun. The inner planets, Mercury, Venus, and Earth, are just whizzing along. If the outer planets were traveling as fast as the inner ones, they’d fly away into interstellar space. They stay in their orbits because their velocity exactly balances the weaker pull of the sun.

Stars travel in orbits around the center of a galaxy. That’s what galaxies are — they’re vast bundles of stars orbiting around. They aren’t orbiting around anything in particular. It’s their own combined mass (the mass of the whole galaxy) that creates a gravitational field. This field is what keeps the stars spinning around. It’s what keeps galaxies from flying apart.

Not too many years ago, astronomers developed some improved methods of studying the speed with which the stars in other, nearby galaxies are circling their galactic centers. Embarrassingly, it turned out that galaxies spin Read more

Media Maneuvers

As I work toward the release of my new CD, I’m experimenting with various online promotional avenues. I almost hate to say “promotion,” because I’m not really trying to make money or initiate a brilliant career as an electronic musician. I just want to let people know that the CD exists. But I guess that’s promotion.

So I created a video and put it up on YouTube. If the code embedding works properly, it will show up here:

Pretty snazzy, hunh? The graphics were created in a freeware program called GIMP, and I assembled the video in iMovie on the Mac.

Years ago, when I did some serious playing around with Photoshop, I was frustrated because I could only print one of the dozen or more cool images I’d come up with as versions of a file. Printing was expensive, and framing and matting were expensive. There was no practical way to create a collage.

I was dreaming about this kind of video, but didn’t know it. Now if I can just tear myself away from GIMP long enough to write some more music … well, maybe I’ll find a balance.


In general, the human race is a grave disappointment. Most of our failings (though perhaps not all) can be lumped under the heading “stupidity.” People are, by and large, stupid.

I’m not sure stupidity is an innate human characteristic. I think children learn it from their parents.

A strong case can be made that evolution favors quick decision-making based on fragmentary information. If a hungry predator (or a hostile human) is approaching, you need to make a very quick decision and take action. If you make the wrong decision, you’ll die. That’s not stupidity, it’s just the way things happen. Your fragmentary information (such as, how fast the point of the spear is approaching, and from which direction) may be inadequate, or it may be too complex for you to process it in time to react appropriately. Either way, you die.

But most of the actions we take are not in that category. More often, we have plenty of time to gather information and evaluate possible courses of action. And yet, people very consistently make stupid decisions, decisions that harm themselves and others.

I think this behavior is learned. I’m pretty sure kids watch their parents being stupid and conclude that the way their parents are doing it is the way you’re supposed to do it.

Plenty of adults operate, for instance, on the basis that they should never, ever admit that they’re wrong. That’s stupid.

Plenty of adults operate on the basis that once they have made a decision, they need gather no further data. Further data might force them to re-think their decision, and they feel anxious about doing so. That’s stupid.

And this stuff is learned behavior; it’s not innate.

Most people are very bad at evaluating the long-term, indirect consequences of their actions. Evolution did not equip us with a very good mechanism for doing this kind of thing, because in the environment where our ancestors lived, there were no long-term, indirect consequences! Or rather, there were — you could get killed, thus failing to have offspring. But if there were going to be long-term consequences, you’d usually get immediate feedback about them: Nog stuck me with a spear, and it hurt. I’d better not let him do that again. If there was no immediate feedback, our ancestors had no reason to contemplate the long-term consequences, so they didn’t.

We no longer have that luxury. But it’s known that our ability to evaluate long-term consequences is poor. So it’s even more urgent that we learn to do so. Failure to learn this fact is just blindingly stupid. But it’s also shatteringly common. People are stupid.

Tiny Revelations

Sometimes the unconscious will solve a problem you didn’t even know you had. For a month or more, I’ve been gradually learning the Clementi Sonata in F# Minor. (I’m a very slow learner.) This sonata is my first exposure to Clementi, and I’m finding that he was a clever fellow. He wrote in the same classical style as Haydn and Mozart, who were his contemporaries, but he put a distinctly personal stamp on it.

Typically, the cadences that end sections in the classical style are somewhat formulaic. The first movement of this Clementi sonata, however, ends (both the end of the exposition and the final cadence) with an odd melodic figure that is almost the antithesis of any sort of expected formula. It’s one of several odd things about the movement.

In the middle of the night last night, I awoke with an unprompted realization. That odd melodic figure is an inversion of the main melody in bars 1 and 2. He’s referring directly back to the opening, and doing it in a way that you don’t expect and may not even notice. I don’t know why my brain brought this fact to my attention; it just did.

I wish I learned new piano pieces faster. I want to explore Clementi’s neglected sonatas more thoroughly.

Dipping a Toe in Video

I know there’s all this amazing software for doing stunning video. But I’m a musician. I have my hands quite full, thank you very much, keeping up with all the amazing software for doing stunning audio. Once in a while I open up GIMP and mess around with still images. But video scares me, because I know I could get lost in it, and spend tons of money too.

On the other hand, I’m about to release a new CD of original music, and I’m contemplating ways to promote it online. People seem to flock to YouTube. I really ought to put something up on YouTube. So last night I turned on my MacBook and launched iMovie.

Given that I have no intention of trying to produce anything that looks even vaguely professional, I think iMovie and the cheesy built-in camera in the MacBook may work just fine. I can assemble a video by rearranging short clips. I can add a title screen with some text, or throw in a few weird effects. I can do a voiceover or a slow pan from one part of the frame to another. And I’ll just bet I’ll be able to pull the movie into Garageband and add a music soundtrack to it.

Best of all, perhaps, I can import my still images from GIMP. iMovie automatically zooms or pans the stills slowly, and I haven’t found any user controls over this, but that’s okay. Since I myself am not quite as interesting to watch as Justin or Alicia — heck, I’m not even as interesting to watch as William Buckley — I need to come up with some provocative imagery.

The next thing to think about is, how could I script something that’s actually fun to watch? Do I want to go for political? Mystical? Inspirational? Enigmatic? Humorous? Ironically under-produced? Choices, choices.