Birdsong In The Business Park

Posted by AJ Harbison at 3:46 pm

I was walking between my company’s two offices the other day. There have been a bunch of crows showing up lately, and I heard a couple of crows “caw”ing to each other. That suddenly attenuated my ears to birdish sounds, quite unintentionally, and I heard one bird singing somewhere overhead, and then another down the street, then yet another somewhere else. I kept walking, but turned on my “comprehensive listening” mode, and I was surprised to hear lots of birds singing around the hallowed concrete halls of the business parks. It was an ear-opening experience. I never would have thought that there were a lot of singing birds in the area, but clearly they were there all along and I just wasn’t listening; perhaps I’d gotten used to hearing them so often that I didn’t hear them anymore. Just goes to show (again) that there’s a difference between hearing and listening–and that hearing something a lot often tunes out our listening. Here’s to deeper and more intentional listening!


Another entry in the recently reshuffled iPod playlist category….

I wrote a year ago about how my friend Rae hooked me up with some free CDs she didn’t want. Two of them happened to be the Greatest Hits of Billy Idol and the Greatest Hits: 1974-1978 of The Steve Miller Band. (What it says about the band that they have a Greatest Hits album with 14 tracks that spans all of 5 years, I’m not sure.) I put both those albums into my playlist, and I’ve heard multiple songs from both of them over the last week or so at work.

I’m not too impressed with either album. It’s definitely the 70s-80s rock sound that I would expect, not knowing much about either artist, and to be honest it bores me. Sure, there’s a lot of energy. But the style is quite outdated (insert your favorite cliche about 80s music here), and there’s nothing in the music that transcends the style–nothing that’s designed to last beyond the style itself. Especially in the Billy Idol tracks. They’re all constructed the same way, with the same instruments playing the same types of musical lines in every song. There are very few interesting details. The one exception is the live version of “Rebel Yell,” featuring some rocking acoustic guitar from Steve Stevens. He plays some unique accompaniment patterns, does some “superstrumming,” plays rhythms on muted strings, etc. That is worth listening to. But none of the other songs have the same redeeming quality (or any redeeming quality, to my mind).

Right after a song of Billy Idol’s and a song of The Steve Miller Band’s the other day, the song “All Your Reasons” from Matchbox Twenty’s album Exile On Mainstream started to play. It made me smile, because I love that song and it was a breath of fresh air after the other two. But then I started to wonder why–what was it that made “All Your Reasons” better than “White Wedding” and “Take The Money And Run”?

First of all, “All Your Reasons” is more intelligent than the other songs because while it has a distinctive pop/rock style, it transcends it because it’s a parody of the style. (The song starts out, quite humorously, with a couple of singers singing, with much feeling, “Ba da da da ba ba ba ba da” etc.) Maybe the parody won’t last for decades, but at least it’s a sentient style, so to speak–it’s aware of the style it’s operating in. Secondly, even though “All Your Reasons” is a simple song, there’s more detail in it than in five of Billy Idol’s songs combined–more subtle nuances in the instruments’ parts themselves, on a small scale. And thirdly, there’s more detail on a larger scale: there are great variations in texture (how many instruments are playing and what they’re playing), from the acoustic guitar and voices in the intro, to the full guitar-bass-drums chorus, to a driving bridge, to a chorus with only high guitar (punctuated by small drum fills, otherwise known as “details”).

Perhaps Matchbox Twenty’s music won’t last too far beyond its own style, either. But, while we’re still in a time where their style is relevant (and even if we’re not), it’s better music, and more worth listening to, than Billy Idol or The Steve Miller Band.


Longplayer Live On Twitter

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:08 pm

No doubt due to my post yesterday, my TLB twitter account notified me that Longplayer Live (@longplayerlive) is now following me on Twitter. So if you’re interested in keeping up with the latest news on the Longplayer Live performance in September, head on over and follow them!



Posted by AJ Harbison at 7:24 pm

Thanks to Stephen (@idhrendur) for this one: So, apparently, Longplayer* is a musical composition that lasts for one thousand years. It began playing on December 31st, 1999, and will continue until the same date in 2999–when it will “complete its cycle and begin again.” It was composed by a UK-based musician and composer named Jem Finer, collaborating with the organization Artangel and a think tank of artists, composers and writers (including Brian Eno). It’s composed for singing bowls, and can be played mechanically, digitally, or live by human performers, which it will be on September 12th in London: 1,000 minutes of a 1,000 year-long piece of music–”the live debut of the longest piece of music ever written.”

“Okay, but how does it actually work?” you (and I) ask. This from the website (http://longplayer.org):

The composition of Longplayer results from the application of simple and precise rules to six short pieces of music. Six sections from these pieces – one from each – are playing simultaneously at all times. Longplayer chooses and combines these sections in such a way that no combination is repeated until exactly one thousand years has passed. At this point the composition arrives back at the point at which it first started. In effect Longplayer is an infinite piece of music repeating every thousand years – a millennial loop.

The six short pieces of music are transpositions of a 20’20” score for Tibetan Singing Bowls, the ‘source music’. These transpositions vary from the original not only in pitch but also, proportionally, in duration.

Every two minutes a starting point in each of the six pieces is calculated, from which they then play for the next two minutes. Each starting point is calculated by adding a specific length of time to its previous starting point. For each of the six pieces of music this length of time is unique and unvarying. The relationships between these six precisely calculated increments are what gives Longplayer its exact one thousand year long duration.

So there you have that.

“Okay, but how does it actually sound?” you (and I) ask then. We’re in luck: You can listen to a live stream by clicking here: http://longplayer.org/listen/longplayer.m3u. When you click on the file, you will download an .m3u file (1 KB); once it’s downloaded, it should begin streaming Longplayer live through your default music application (e.g. iTunes).

“Okay, but who actually CARES?” you (and I) ask then. I (and maybe you) wonder if such things are just a fad resulting from the existential crisis of our age; it’s certainly difficult to imagine Bach or Beethoven conceiving of a thousand-year piece, or caring about it, even if the technology to make it possible had been present. Interestingly enough, the website has this to say:

The second and more abstract question about Longplayer’s future is social – who will look after Longplayer as its technological, cultural and social environments change? How does one generation of custodians go about establishing a durable chain of succession, down which the responsibility for Longplayer’s survival can realistically be expected to pass, even over hundreds of years? How many institutions have survived, with their initial objective intact, over the last thousand years?

It’s good and smart of the people involved in Longplayer’s creation to think about such questions; but apart from establishing the Longplayer Trust to oversee and perpetuate the project, they don’t provide any answers. My question is this: as the “technological, cultural and social environments” around Longplayer change, who’s to say that we won’t get to a point where it won’t be seen as art or science or metaphysics or whatever it’s supposed to be, but just as a silly experiment by a less enlightened time, and shut it off? How disappointed would Mr. Finer be if the composition survived for a few hundred years–but then died because no one cared anymore?

* I didn’t place the title “Longplayer” in italics, as I normally would, because it’s not formatted that way on its website. It’s possible that this isn’t a conscious decision, but on the off chance that the creators intentionally left the title without any special formatting other than capitalization, I follow the same convention.


Making Music Improves Your Hearing

Posted by AJ Harbison at 2:13 pm

I ran across this news article on Wired a few days ago. Apparently a new study has shown that musicians are better than non-musicians at hearing “speech-in-noise,” like picking out someone’s voice from a loud environment such as a crowded room. The authors of the study liken the ability to trying to hear one’s own instrument when playing in an orchestra or band, and suggest that perhaps things such as that are the cause of the enhanced perception. One of the authors says, “If we could establish that musical experience could help perception of speech-in-noise, that has all kinds of provocative implications in terms of encouraging policy-makers and parents to pursue musical education for their kids.” Check out the article here:

“Making Music Hacks Your Hearing”


“Icicle,” Under The Pink, Tori Amos

Posted by AJ Harbison at 12:58 pm

I mentioned the other day that I’d been introduced to Tori Amos’ album Under The Pink by an old friend of mine, and that I’d recently put it into a playlist on my iPod. My friend had attended a church I was a member of a long time ago, and she thought I would find it interesting that Amos makes use of a hymn in one of her songs on that album. She couldn’t find it on the record she was playing at the time, but I found it when I got the CD and listened to it on my own.

In the piano intro to the song “Icicle,” Amos writes a deconstruction of the hymn “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” (careful, a crappy MIDI piano version of the hymn will start playing if you visit the site). After some meandering chords that change modalities (switching from major to minor, mainly by switching from F to F-sharp), the hymn begins at the 53-second mark. Although she adds an extra beat here and there, it’s a faithful rendering of the hymn through one verse. But the last chord of the verse is swapped for a flat-VI (an A-flat major chord replaces the expected C major), and she launches into her deconstruction through another verse. She first simply adds the flat seventh, turning C major chords into C dominant sevens, but then really throws it off by switching between major and minor tonalities (by switching from E to E-flat and then from D to D-flat) and collapsing into a dissonant mess. After hanging out on the final cluster chord for a while, the accompaniment to the song proper begins, an A-flat 5 arpeggio.

The subject matter of the song concerns Amos’ exchanging of her parents’ religion for her own ideas, and thus the gradual decline of the hymn into chaos is a brilliant musical mirroring of what she’s about to sing. You can listen to the whole song here, courtesy of Last.fm. Be forewarned that the song contains some sexually suggestive material; but you can listen to the intro and then stop the song when she starts singing if you’d like to avoid it.


Listening On the iPod

Posted by AJ Harbison at 5:32 pm

Usually, I can’t listen to music while I do something else, because I’m always listening to the music and analyzing it, whether I want to or not. In college I was never able to listen to music while I was studying because the music would be too distracting. Even when I’m eating out at a restaurant, some back corner of my mind is always listening and analyzing. I like to call this one of the “occupational hazards” of being a composer.

All this to say, I don’t have much occasion to make use of my iPod. However, occasionally at work I’m given some mindless tasks, like data entry for reports or conversion of a bunch of files from one format to another; and so I keep my iPod at work for such situations. It’s not large enough to sync with my entire iTunes library (it’s a 4GB iPod nano), so I have to pick and choose what I put on there. Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve recently put into my shuffled mindless-work playlist:

And here are a few albums I’ve taken out: