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This ain't no disco? Oh really? That Talking Heads lyric was always misquoted (as David Byrne complains in his new book) but from the look of the charts, this is, indeed, a disco. The two biggest hits of the summer (certainly my two favorites) are straight-up, unashamed, and wonderful disco songs.

Daft Punk already has my vote for album of the year. I've enjoyed their other work, but Random Access Memories is absolutely brilliant. Recorded straight to tape with an all-star cast of live musicians, it combines their electronica work with their love for old R&B and disco, and features the playing of some of the greatest musicians of that era, like Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers.

And for you those of you still trapped in the segregated 1970s: While we were all chanting "Disco Sucks!" we were also, without realizing it, listening to and enjoying the work of both of those musicians, and many other "disco" artists besides. And our "rock" heroes worshiped them.

Moroder became famous in creating Eurodisco with Donna Summer hits like "I Feel Love," but he went on to produce brilliant work for "rock" musicians like David Bowie, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Adam Ant, Blondie and Freddie Mercury.

Nile Rodgers, meanwhile, was the founder of Chic and the writer of songs that wedding DJs use to this day to fill a dance floor. He was the driving force behind Bowie's Let's Dance, and produced records for Southside Johnny, Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, and so on.

In any case, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" is driven by Rodgers' killer guitar. Daft Punk recorded a demo, featuring Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Nathan East, who's played with everyone from Eric Clapton to Stevie Wonder. Rodgers stripped it down to the drum part, and worked out one of his signature guitar parts. Then East rerecorded his bass part to match Rodgers' playing, Pharrell Williams sang the vocal, and a monster single was born. No drum machines or samplers, a minimal number of tracks: Disco the way it was recorded 35 years ago.

And then there's Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," which was the result of a deliberate attempt to recreate Marvin Gaye's 1977 disco smash, "Got To Give It Up (Part I)." (The attempt may have been a little too successful, as it turns out; Thicke is facing lawsuits from Gaye and from George Clinton, whose "Sexy Ways" bears more than a passing resemblance to "Blurred Lines.")

I'm not sure "Blurred Lines" qualifies as plagiarism; the similarities are obvious, but more in groove and style than in specific lyrics or hooks. (Although the bass line is pretty damn close.) If it's plagiarism, so is a good chuck of Prince's early work. You also have to wonder why George Clinton didn't sue Marvin Gaye, considering that "Got To Give It Up" came out three years after Funakdelic released "Sexy Ways." But then maybe Gaye might have had an issue with the Funkadelic record, whose title (Standing On the Verge Of Getting It On) clearly referenced Gaye's own "Let's Get It On."

But I am sure that "Blurred Lines" is a killer single. And that Pharrell Williams is having a very good summer.

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Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, I found myself thinking frequently of UB40's great song about her, "Madam Medusa," from their first and best album, 1980's Signing Off. Their later pop successes with "Red Red Wine" and "I Got You Babe" often overshadow their much heavier and more serious early work.

The cover of Signing Off is an image of the band's namesake, the "dole card" that recipients of unemployment benefits in Britain had to carry to get their benefits. The band said at the time that it gave them millions of card-carrying members from the day of their formation, in the dark days of Thatcherism, the Falklands war, race riots and Reagan's election in the U.S.

1980 was the year of Sandinista!, the Clash's last great album, and their magnificent 12" dub singles. Bob Marley gave us his last album, including his career farewell, "Redemption Song." In the US, David Bowie released his last great album for at least a decade, Bruce Springsteen followed up Born To Run with two discs of dark and thoughtful songs, Dead Kennedys released Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, and Talking Heads released their greatest album, Remain In Light. And John Lennon and Yoko Ono started over and ended too early.

Meanwhile, in England, things were happening up north. In Manchester, Joy Division, having released its iconic album Closer, had just lost singer Ian Curtis to suicide and was about to turn into New Order. A future UB40 collaborator from Ohio was making her name with a band called Pretenders. And the so-called Two-Tone movement was reviving 1960s ska in the Midlands, where bands like the Specials, the Selecter and the (English) Beat were getting started.

UB40 ended up being lumped in with that crowd, but while the two-tone bands were reviving the 1960s, UB40 was writing genuinely British roots reggae, in the spirit of their Midlands predecessors, Steel Pulse. But while they continued the fiery political tradition, UB40 put aside Rastafari and the Bible and wrote for their secular British peers. "Madam Medusa" is a terrifying tune that perfectly captures the impact Thatcher had on Britain. Alongside songs like "Burden Of Shame, "Tyler," "King," and their cover of "Strange Fruit," it is as much a document of its time and place as "Catch a Fire" was of early 1970s Kingston.

The album was recorded in a Birmingham flat, with the sax in the kitchen, the percussion in the back yard, and a single 50p coin being recycled through the jimmied electric meter. It was released in a single package with an accompanying 12" single (making for the very confusing prospect of a double album where one disc played at 33 RPM and the other at 45 RPM) containing three songs recorded in a "real" studio, the A side being "Madam Medusa."

Almost thirteen minutes long, it opens with a organ bubble beat, a killer bass line, and the words. "From the land of shadows, comes a dreadful sight / The lady with a marble smile, spirit of the night." Brian Travers answers every line with a heavily reverbed sax. "From the tombs of ignorance / Of hate and greed and lies / Through the smoke of sacrifice / Watch her future rise." With controlled fury and bitter wordplay ("Her tree of evil knowledge / Sprouts a special branch") that must have made Peter Tosh proud, they dissect her mercilessly, Ali Campbell's mournful vocal contrasting with Astro's frenzied toasting ("Run for your life before she eat you alive / Move out the way cos you blocking out the day"). It and "Burden Of Shame" were the only songs whose lyrics were printed on the album's inner sleeves.

I've been thinking about this song since Thatcher died, but my turntable is in the shop so I couldn't play the album. But I stumbled across the deluxe CD reissue of Signing Off last weekend at a stoop sale, and I'm happy I did because it's very much worth it. The remastering is stellar, with the bass sounding every bit as good as it does on vinyl, and the collection is perfect. Disc 1 is the original album and 12" EP, while disc 2 contains the 12" versions and singles that weren't on the album, including "The Earth Dies Screaming." There are also several live performances demonstrating exactly how great this band was, and a DVD of videos. (Warning: This edition seems to be out of print; the version available on Amazon and other online retailers is a single-disc reissue containing only the original album and EP.)

This is the UB40 that became famous in England, long before they had their first US hits, which were, ironically, covers of reggae singles they'd loved as kids. ("Red Red Wine" is frequently mis-identified as a Neil Diamond cover, but UB40's hit was a very faithful cover of the Tony Tribe version of the song, a late 1960s hit in Jamaica during the era when ska and rocksteady artists would cover American pop hits for the local market.)

But this record from the 1980s speaks to the here and now in a way the hit singles don't. The speculators still prance in the bloody footsteps of her successors in Greece and Italy and Cyprus, and we all still prefer to ignore our own burdens of shame.

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I am, finally, returning to good old LJ. While I do post publicly here, many posts, including my most recent, are limited to friends-only viewing. If the post below this is from October, you're either not logged in or not on my friends list. Comment here or email to be added.
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No one seems to have broken in, at least, and the windows are intact. But that looks a dead bird over there and I hear mice. The rug will have to go, and probably the furniture -- yes, definitely, looks like the mice got into the couch.


It'll take some work to spruce it up but it's nice to be back in the old place. Solid words and writing, not like the cheap drywall at Facebook. I wonder if all the neighbors have moved away?

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I'm playing Etta James today. Not her old stuff. I'm listening to two records that might not exist at all had she not been such a tough woman. I like her 50s and 60s stuff just fine, but for me, her music reached its peak when she was hitting bottom. We lost a lot of great musicians at the end of the 1960s, and we mythologize them and listen to their old records over and over. But Etta faced those challenges, and then some, and came through them, so we can not only listen to her young self, but her older and wiser self. And I think that deserves more respect than dying young.

By the end of the 1960s, blues and R&B were being shunted aside in favor of rock, and her long-time home label, Chess, was foundering (deservedly), forcing Muddy Waters to record idiotic psychedelic albums and losing many greats to illness and death. In 1974, she was one of Chess's last hitmakers, but she was also in a psychiatric hospital trying to kick a terrible drug and alcohol habit. She got releases to go to the studio though, and recorded Come a Little Closer.

It could have been a disaster. James was so ill from withdrawal that she literally could not sing a word on one of the songs. The producer she was working with, Gabriel Mekler, was better known for his work with rock bands like Three Dog Night. But out of this adversity she delivered one of the best records of her career. It's often belittled for its use of synthesizers and other mid-70s production cliches, but in many cases those choices work. And when they don't, Etta brushes them aside like so many cobwebs.

The high point is right at the center of the album (the end of side one and start of side two, originally), beginning with her version of a song by Randy Newman (of all people), "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield." I've never heard his original, but it's a spectacularly sexy and creepy song. She sings it as only she could, sultry but threatening. She has you from the opening lines. The lyrics are simple ("Let's burn down the cornfield / And we'll listen to it burn.") but there is a world of pain and sex in her voice. And it builds from there to an extraordinary dual synthesizer/guitar solo that proves wrong the idea that synthesizers have no place on blues albums.

Following that is "Power Play," a classic kick in the butt of the sort she could deliver so well. And then comes the song she couldn't even sing, "Feeling Uneasy." It's a slow blues, and she just moans wordlessly over the changes. It's magnificent and about as "uneasy" as it gets. From that she goes into the hoary old classic "St Louis Blues," but opens it with a gorgeous solo vocal, and then sings it with a chorus much the way Bessie did it originally. This album has stood up to years of repeated listening, ever since a member of blues-l sent me a cassette mix that included "Cornfield" and I made a point to track down the album.

But by the 1980s, she was in career limbo again, still battling addiction. But she came out of the Betty Ford Center, went down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and recorded Seven-Year Itch with a crack band led by Steve Cropper. She's at her best with a good horn section, since little else has the power to go toe-to-toe with her voice, and the rest of the band is exactly as tight as you'd expect. She opens up with "I Got the Will," the Otis Redding classic, and she's not kidding. The fast songs (especially "Shakey Ground") are irresistible and the slow songs let her stretch out like a big cat getting ready to pounce. When she sings "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home" you want to pack up and head out the back door before she gets there. The whole album would be worth buying just for what I think is the best performance ever of "Damn Your Eyes."

Last week a harp player at a gig asked me if I wanted to come to a blues jam with him, and I said no, because amplified blues nowadays is usually just rock music without songwriting. But I remember doing "Shakey Ground" with the great NYC blues singer Christine LaFroscia and a band we called the Homewreckers, all players who know how to do blues and R&B right, and there is nothing like a good blues sung by someone who takes no prisoners. Etta never did. She fought her way through hells that most of us could never imagine, and came out the other side, and because of that strength, we have these amazing records. Thank you, Etta.

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It doesn't matter how much music you listen to or how knowledgeable you think you are. At some point, you'll stumble across someone and wonder how you could possibly have not known about them. Better yet, you'll listen to this artist's work and say to yourself, "ooooh, so that is where (Bowie/Eno/Iggy/Nick Cave/Joy Division/etc) got it from....

Which is what I'm saying now after finally paying attention to Scott Walker and listening to some of his work. (No, not the ignorant governor of Wisconsin. The other Scott Walker, whose non-brother band The Walker Brothers was hugely successful in England in the late 1960s.)

Walker has shown up on the edge of my radar a couple of times in the past few years. He had an impressive track on the Plague Songs compilation, which also featured new and excellent tracks by folks like Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson, each written around one of the Biblical plagues. His name also came up in some reading I'd been doing about David Bowie's later work; Bowie covered his song "Nite Flights" on his 1992 album Black Tie White Noise, which many including me regarded as his first decent release in a decade or so. And then a few weeks ago I saw a copy of the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man in a Syracuse record store and almost bought it. Instead I rented it on iTunes and finally got to watch it on the bus this morning.

The Walker Brothers' hits were bombastic and over-produced, and Scott could be positively painful with his deep voice and soulful looks -- picture Tom Jones if he could sing like Roy Orbison. Check him out singing Frankie Valli's "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" from 1965.

But fast-forward to 2006, and watch this video of "Jesse" from 2006's The Drift. Spare guitar, stunning digital animation, and genuinely terrifying lyrics.
Jesse are you listening?
It casts its ruins in shadows
Under Memphis moonlight
Jesse are you listening?
Pow! Pow!
In the dream
I am crawling around in my hands and knees
Smoothing out the prairie
All the dents and the gouges
And the winds dying down
I lower my head
Press my ear to the prairie
Alive, I'm the only one
Left alive
I'm the only one
Left alive

In the documentary, we watch Brian Eno listening to the original version of "Nite Flights," which he brought to Montreaux where he was working with Bowie on the Lodger album, shaking his head and marveling that music has hardly progressed since its 1978 release. He talks about the way it combines electronic and experimental music with pop songs, and then he takes off his glasses and shakes his head.

"I have to say, it's humiliating to hear this," he says. "It is! Christ. We haven't got any further. You just keep hearing all these bands that sound like bloody Roxy Music and Talking Heads." (Mind you, Eno was a pivotal figure in both bands.) "We haven't gotten any further than this," he continues. "It's a disgrace, really." Meanwhile, Bowie, who largely financed the film, just laughs and shakes his head, confessing to not fully understanding Walker's lyrics but simply falling in love with the imagery.

Bowie's Lodger was clearly influenced by Walker, and not just in its song "African Night Flight," although the Walker Brothers album was in turn very strongly influenced by Bowie's mid-70s work from Young Americans through "Heroes". Bowie's cover of "Nite Flights" itself is an eye-opener; his vocal follows Walker's original rather closely, but on the other hand, is distinctively Bowie. I've listened to the two of them back to back quite a few times today and I feel like Walker is the missing link in Bowie's vocal development, the link that connects the crooners of the fifties to the punks of the 70s.

For the last year or so I've been returning to the experimental music I listened to in college, but very selectively. I've been thinking a lot about what I don't like and why (Kraftwerk, but not Tangerine Dream; 1984 King Crimson but not 1970-anything King Crimson; Peter Gabriel but not Genesis; Jon Hassell but not Jan Garbarek, etc) and Scott Walker is a good illustration. Dark, pretentious, sometimes completely more noise than music but -- musical. Songs. Lyrics, powerful lyrics. He has a gorgeous voice but thankfully also knows that singing should not always be pretty. Most of all, he's building these spaces -- sparse music, incredible imagery, silence, noises -- all of it combines into something amazing and architectural. In the end that's what matters; his music grabs me and won't let go.


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mary_wroth signed up for a Zipcar account recently so I joined her account, since that way I can have a car when I'm in the city without having to drive mine back from Ithaca and worry about parking and such.

At first I loved it -- two quick rentals for $50 saved me a lot of hauling music equipment around and were cheaper and more convenient than a cab ride. But then, the gotcha hit. And it is a big gotcha: $750 to be exact.

Zipcar's friendly site explains its "six simple rules" breezily, and they sound obvious. One of them is, walk around the car before your reservation and report any damage. So far so good. I picked up my car on a Thursday night, looked it over, and drove off. I returned it three hours later and went home happy.

But sometime after I dropped it off, the car was damaged, most likely by the parking garage attendants. And according to Zipcar and their terms of service, I was responsible for that damage even though I had not caused it. Their contract says very simply, "If Zipcar is not notified of a problem at the start of a reservation, you will be held responsible for unreported damage to the vehicle after your reservation, and Zipcar may charge you damage fees, suspend, or may even terminate your membership."

In other words, if the car is not damaged at the start of your reservation, and is damaged at the start of the next member's reservation, you are responsible. Period.

In my lengthy and largely one-sided exchanges with Zipcar (see details below; most of my emails and questions went unanswered), I kept asking the same question over and over: If I could prove that the car was not damaged when I dropped it off -- let's say I made sure to photograph the car at the end of my reservation -- am I still responsible for the damage?

They never clearly answered this question, but based on others' experiences as well as my own (Yelp review, New York Times article) the answer is yes. They will not only hold you responsible, they will charge you the $750 fee immediately, before any appeal, before the car is repaired, and before your insurance adjuster or lawyer can inspect the vehicle. And based on what happened to me, they will do it all with vague and breezy emails, and ignore your questions.

I don't know if this is a callous policy or a way of encouraging members to pay an extra $75 year for the damage waiver -- even those of us, like me, who are already covered by our auto insurance plans or credit cards -- but either way, it's outrageous. And they're being deliberately vague about it on their site and in conversations or emails with their customer service staff. So if you're interested in Zipcar or you know people who are, make sure they understand this. And make sure they use a real credit card on their account, not a debit card; they took $750 directly out of mary_wroth's bank account. If they'd charged a normal credit card, she could have put the amount in dispute rather than waiting for them to give the money back (which they did, four days after saying the damage wasn't my fault).
The vague and breezy threatsCollapse )
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Eugene Chadbourne
Originally uploaded by kenficara
Eugene Chadbourne is to country music what Monthy Python was to situation comedies. He played a show in Ithaca last night with improvisational percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, covering Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hoyt Axton and more.

I've been playing a lot of live/improvisational music lately, and participating in a lot of improv communities. But I don't like the sort of completely out-of-control insanity that characterizes musicians like Frank Zappa (with whom Chadbourne played) or Captain Beefheart. And the opening improvisation last night, I wasn't sure I would stay for the whole show. It wasn't musical.

Wasn't musical? That's a separate essay -- a long one -- but last night the specific problem was that the rhythms were changing constantly and there was no resolution -- no tonal center. The music had no home to return to, and therefore to my ears, did not develop and never went anywhere. All gin and no tonic. Many jazz musicians and classical composers work like this deliberately, but I don't like their work at all.

Luckily, it didn't stay this way. By the end of that improvisation there was the hint of a center, and he segued into what sounded very much like a modal old-time banjo tune. And then from there he went to very twisted covers of some country classics. Nakatani amazingly kept up with everything he did, no matter how insane or how unpredictable. It was in fact often hard to tell who was driving and who was following.

Sometimes Chadbourne drifted into outright mockery, which is maybe appropriate for Roger Miller's "Dang Me," but Patsy Cline and Hoyt Axton deserve more respect than they got last night.

On the other hand, Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone" was as beautiful as it should be, and as twisted as everything the duo did -- concluding with Nakatani singing high harmony while abusing a cymbal.

Nakatani is definitely a percussionist, not a drummer. He was not keeping time, even when there was time to keep. He was playing fills and answering the banjo and spinning ball bearings in metal bowls and playing riffs on a tuneable tom-tom and sawing away at a cymbal with a violin bow. Sometimes all at once. Meanwhile Chadbourne was not content with the banjo -- he played a balloon (with Nakatani harmonizing along with the squeak) as well as his infamous electric rake. (what is it? It's an electric rake. A garden rake. With a pickup.)

It was quite an evening and when we found out the next morning we'd missed a Margaret Atwood reading we were disappointed but then thought, hey, Margaret Atwood and that show on the same night? How cool is that?
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I have a few new harmonitronica pieces online, all created with some new equipment I'm testing out. I'll write more about this separately, but I have outgrown (or rather, my music has outgrown) the basic delay pedals I've been using. They weren't flexible enough, didn't offer enough loops, or enough control over the loops, and too much of the system was mono. More and more with this music I am trying to create spaces which means I need much more control over the stereo image.

In any case, here are the newest pieces:
  • March Of the Zombies
    Halloween harmonitronica. A staccatto rhythm harp, overlaid blues harp using a filter, and percussion recorded live to a loop track. This takes advantage of a new sampler I've been using that includes some great effects and a nice set of drum sounds, as well as an ElectroHarmonix multitrack loop unit. This is all live, including the rhythm track.

  • Why Are You So Far Away (Why Are You Not Here With Me)
    A sad and simple blues figure, with overlaid harmonies. There's no rhythm here and all the effects are various delays from an Eventide TimeFactor.

  • Discreet Harmonica IV (More Music For Housecleaning)
    This is a series of minor-key figures played on a chromatic harmonica, each running in its own loop, all different lengths, and themselves allowed to repeat and decay through the EHX system. Mostly the loops drifted on their own as I cleaned house. Every once in a while I'd play something new into the system, or change which loops were recording or decaying.

  • Discreet Harmonica V (The Very Long Black Veil)
    A deconstruction of the country classic. I played the melody once, straight through, as you hear it, and looped it on one track of the EHX. Then as the melody played again, I recorded harmony parts, recording sections of those into three other loops, all different lengths. I then let those decay and overlay almost at random, adding some new parts here and there. I concluded it by allowing it all to decay as I played the melody one more time. These simple diatonic melodies work really well for this; the harmonies clash sometimes, but just as often they find surprising and beautiful new combinations.

As always, these are played completely live, and edited only for length (and in some cases for level).

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An email correspondent asked what I meant in my previous post when I said that Discreet Music is not boring, since it's not something you could really listen to all the way through. Perhaps a better word would have been "monotonous," but I stand by my statement.

Robert Fripp characterizes Eno's definition of ambient music as "music as ignorable as it is listenable." Muzak® is neither ignorable nor listenable, because it's so annoying. White and pink noise machines, the sleep machines that make artificial wave noises, and many other types of generative music applications (even some of the ones Eno has worked on) are ignorable, but not listenable. They are gentle and do not intrude or annoy, but if you focus on them, you get bored rapidly, because there simply isn't enough happening.

"Discreet Music" is not like that. It's non-intrusive, but if you do listen to it (and I have been listening to it a lot as I work on covering it; the version linked to in my previous post is only the first of many approaches to it) you keep hearing new things. It's fractal in that respect -- no matter how closely you look, there is more to see.

Meanwhile, I slipped out between sets at the Greenwich Village Bistro on Sunday night to browse Bleecker Street Records, where I found the 2008 reissue of (No Pussyfooting), which could also be called the "first ambient recording." It preceded Discreet Music by two years and is the first recording of the kind of looping music I'm doing now. (Yeah, yeah, Steve Reich, Different Trains, etc. No doubt a huge inspiration to Eno, but not the same thing at all.) I'll have more thoughts on that in a day or two; it's stunningly beautiful and a reminder that sometimes "remastering" really does mean something.

Finally, here's "Low Blood Sugar," my latest harmonitronica piece, nine minutes of very noisy loops, including harmonica, synthesizers, guitars and filters, all played live.

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Benoît Mandelbrot died on Thursday. I hadn't realized the founder of chaos theory, the man who coined the word "fractal" to describe a concept he had discovered, was still alive. Fractals haven't even been around for 30 years? But yes, that's right; his original book was published in 1982.

For me there are two essential concepts in his work. The first is that many things do not get simpler the more closely you look at them. His classic statement of this insight was the question "How long is the coast of England?" If you measure it with a yard stick you'll get one number. If you measure it with a foot-long ruler you'll get another, larger number. If you measure it microscopically, you'll get a much larger number. You could say that the length is, actually, infinite, getting larger and larger the more closely you measure.

What makes it even more interesting, though, is that he defined a class of functions that produce that kind of complexity. The most famous of those, when graphed, produces the famous "Mandelbrot Set." The images of this set, usually brilliantly colored, are incredibly complicated and beautiful, but the function that produces it is very simple:

f(z) = z² + C

That's it. That's all you need to do to create those gorgeously complex pictures. You pick a constant number (C), and run the function over and over. You compute f(C). Then you take the result, and put it back into the function, computing f(result). You do that over and over (or better yet your computer does it for you) until either the results start shooting off to infinity, or stabilize at a single value. (Meaning, F(Z) = Z, so the results stop changing.) If it stabilizes, you put a point on the graph for C, because it's in the set. You can color that point depending on how fast it stabilizes. And you do that enough, and you get those gorgeous pictures.

Breathtaking beauty and complexity, from calculations you could do with a pencil if you just had enough time. This is an illustration of one of the core principles of my atheism: Some of the most beautiful things in the world are created not by deliberate intention, but by the endless repetition of very simple processes. Glaciers, forests, ocean waves, clouds, light on water -- they are far too complex to create intentionally.

Which brings me to generative music. Music is much simpler than nature, for the most part, and obviously you can create very beautiful music intentionally. But you can also create very beautiful and complex music from very simple pieces, if you loop them repeatedly and feed them back into each other. One of my favorite examples of the latter is Brian Eno's Discreet Music.

It's more than 30 minutes long, but it's created from two brief musical phrases (something like seven seconds for one, and eighteen seconds for the other). He had both phrases in a synthesizer with a recall system (the EMS Synthi A, an early sequencer) which played them repeatedly. Since they were different lengths, they combined in different ways every time they looped.

He treated them with an equalizer to change the timbre of the notes, and then fed them into a long tape delay system. (A literal loop -- five feet or so of tape.) Then he let that all run more or less unattended as he answered the phone, did other things, and occasionally injected something new into the mix. 30 minutes of that recording filled the first side of the classic album.

The result is beautiful and soothing and never boring, and I have loved it since the first time I heard it a quarter-century or so ago. (Come to think of it, I think I bought that album the same year Mandelbrot wrote his book.)

And today, perhaps in unintentional honor of Mandelbrot, I recorded a version of that piece on harmonica. I played the two basic phrases on a chromatic harmonica (the melodies themselves are very simple diatonic pieces in C or G minor, depending on your viewpoint), using an octave generator on the harmonica. I recorded each of them into a separate loop, leaving lots of space around them. I started both running, and fed them into a ten-second loop with a very long decay time. The two short phrases immediately started interacting in unpredictable ways, and it was very soon recognizable as "Discreet Music."

Rather than modifying the loops with equalizers or a synthesizer, every once in a while I would play the phrases again, higher or lower on the harmonica, or with different settings on the octave generator, or with different embrochure. Those fed into the long delay and became part of the mix. The piece is (arbitrarily) about 15 minutes long, and for at least half that time I was just sitting and listening to the loops.

The result is not perfect (small flubs playing the phrases, or playing them a bit too loud, in a few spots) but I like it a lot. The original is better, but hell, this is all harmonica. And it was performed entirely live; what you hear is a direct two-track recording with no editing at all, other than fading it in and fading it out.

There's a lot more to hear at harmonitronica.com, ranging from ambient pieces like this to very aggressive blues riff sampling to some lighthearted pieces. There's even a political piece, and a gospel song, and I will be posting more pieces in the weeks to come. And stay tuned for the next time you can see some live harmonitronica.

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The other night at a bluegrass jam in Red Hook, a couple of hipsters came in and started singing some old-time songs. They played loud and fast and not terribly well, and didn't leave much room for others. They played the old tune "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" -- the one with lyrics like "I'm going where the weather suits my clothes" -- and added some new verses, including one that began, "I ain't gonna take this shit no more." I'm not a hardcore traditionalist; music should grow and change, and people should sing things that are relevant to themselves. But that lyric made me roll my eyes.

There's an old-time song I like to sing called "Lazy John." For a long time I only knew two verses to it, then I heard someone else play it and he sang a third verse. I liked it and asked him where it came from and he said he'd heard it from another singer. Why did that matter, and why did I never try to write my own verses? The answer is some combination of, "They wouldn't fit," "What gives me the right," and "That takes all the fun out of it."

In the end, old-time lyrics, like lyrics in most traditional music forms (blues, in particular) are circulated, well-worn, reused many times. They've stood the test of time. They've amused or captured enough people to survive all these years; they are the memes that survived the evolutionary process.

Meanwhile, I've been accumulating various vintage instruments. Not old Martins or Gibsons, nothing to do with playing old-time music. Vintage synthesizers, samplers and sequencers. I have some new ones as well, but even though the old ones are usually heavy and don't necessarily work perfectly, they sound wonderful and are a completely different experience from flimsily made modern digital equipment.

Again, these are the survivors, the instruments people saved and used and loved, that still have resale value because people still want them. There are user communities, and groups that trade or sell the software upgrades (on 3.5" floppy disks) and the accessories, and share information on good patches and hacks.

What's the relation between this and old-time lyrics? Open source. Old-time music is open source. No one owns it. You can reuse it and change it to your heart's content. You can learn as much as you like about its inner workings and how to create it. And what you do goes out into a community and lives or dies on its own merits, not on your personal attitude. And it's not yours, in any case. (This is the essential problem with Bob Dylan; he's the musical equivalent of a commercial software company incorporating GPL'd code into its products.)

The kind of electronic music I've been messing with (dance music, lo-fi, hip-hop, etc) doesn't sound anything like old-time, but it's similar in many other respects. It's accessible. You can create it without knowing a lot about music or being able to play an instrument (or play it particularly well -- same goes for old-time, which is why so many hipsters are into it). You can share it and remix it and learn from others doing the same. It's grown through word of mouth, mix tapes, indie releases, community music projects.

It's open-source music. Free music. And while we should be clear that when talking about information, "free" generally refers to freedom, not lack of cost, you can hear my latest experiments on my 50/90 page. And they are all licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License, which means you can share it, and incorporate bits of it into your own work, but only if your work is also noncommercial, and only if you share your work the same way I'm sharing mine.


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Yes, I'm wrapping up one of the longest (and most rewarding) (and most frustrating) jobs I've ever done, and looking forward to a summer and fall of music. (And other things, as well, but more about that later.)

Remember harmonitronica? I haven't forgotten about it, and in fact, played it live for Yael Shtainer's MEta dance performance earlier this summer. I'm doing a lot more experiments with it, and starting to incorporate some other toys I've been acquiring -- various sequencers and synths.

You can hear the latest updates on my 50/90 Challenge page. 50/90 is a songwriter challenge like February Album Writing Month, with the idea being to write 50 songs between July 1 and October 1. I'm starting halfway through, and have no intention of writing 50 songs, but it's fun to have others listen to this work, plus, several friends are doing it and now that I have time I'd like to keep up with their work as well.

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Over the weekend I wrote, recorded and posted six songs in two days, to finish February with fifteen new songs. Three of them are not "harmonitronica," but I do have an even dozen of those, plus a few that I did in January and more to come. So there may be an album of that in the works.

Meanwhile, here are the results of my weekend marathon, in reverse chronological order:

Sunday Night

Unreal No. 4 (Glow)
I did a lot of weird stuff this year, and the penultimate song was particularly strange and threatening, but that's not actually how I've been feeling. As I said in the liner notes, "This has been a really wonderful February, so I wanted to close out with something about playing in the snow, making hot chocolate, sitting next to the fire, playing music with friends, and the people in your life who make you smile for no apparent reason." And you know who you are. ;-)

The basic fingerpicking pattern has been in my head for a while; I actually recorded it on my phone, to remember it, when I was in Arizona. I got the steel guitar out, played through the riff a few times to make sure I remembered it, put a tremolo harmonica in the rack, and turned on the recorder. Three minutes or so later, I turned it off, and this is the result. One take, no editing, a few flubs, a creaky chair.

Correctness Is the Goal
In Ithaca a few weeks ago I picked up a 1961 Folkways LP called Mend Your Speech, narrated by Harry Fleetwood, possessor of "a kindly gentle voice and a cultivated manner." This "remedial study" focuses on correct pronunciation of common words. It's a deeply strange record, and its calm obsession with "words fitly spoken" is, in spots, rather disturbing.

The backing track for this is looped bass harmonica, chromatic harmonica, abuse of the microphone with various metal implements, and vocals inspired by seeing Yoko Ono last week.

Walking the Halls
Coming upstairs from getting the newspaper the other day I found myself whistling this little riff. I went straight to the synth and played it into my looping system. Played some harp over it, and edited it down from 20 minutes of messing around.

Three Conventional Songs

Words Of Angels
I sing a lot of gospel tunes at traditional music sessions, and I do it without irony or mixed feelings. Another atheist gospel lover calls those songs "love songs to the universe." I kinda like that. But ... just because I love something doesn't mean I won't make fun of it...

The Twelve-Bar Blues
The idea of writing a 12-bar blues about having the blues in twelve different bars came to me over the summer, along with the chorus, although I mostly rewrote that. I'm sure someone has done this before, but I had fun with it. These are all real places that I see and play music at all the time; the last bar mentioned, Freddy's, is on the edge of Bruce Ratner's commercial terrorism basketball arena project, and may be torn down.

Soon Enough
This is a classic country song, with a humorous self-flagellating twist that I am really fond of. I think it's one of the best songs I've written in a while, and I am happy to say it is not at all about current events.

And One More...

I put this up one night last week and didn't have time to post about it. It's basically acoustic harmonitronica -- recorded using my looping system, but without any effects aside from a touch of delay. I recorded the basic four-bar harp rhythm, then overlaid vocals and harmonies and harmonica.

Unusually for the harmonitronica stuff, it has lyrics which were written down in advance, although I reorganized and rewrote them as I played. It's the only explicit love song of this year's crop, and I am glad to say it did not blow up in my face the way last year's love song did. (Not at all, in fact; see the final song.)

As usual, this was all recorded live. The original was about 15 improvised minutes, trying different ideas out. I edited it down to the stuff that worked and removed a lot of repetition. I am becoming fond of this kind of composition, as opposed to my more typical method of writing, then recording. This has been a very different FAWM for me and it's perhaps my favorite so far.

However, one drawback of improvisational recording is unprovidential screwups. The clipping on this track is one such, but can't be fixed. I might redo the demo sometime, but it wouldn't be the same.


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My eighth song for FAWM is "Interstate (A Mobile Tribute to Ralf und Florian)," which was created entirely on handheld devices, and recorded in the car driving home from upstate this past weekend.

Don't worry, I wasn't doing anything stupid. The recording was unattended. I had a digital recorder with me, running on and off for much of the drive, from which I drew a lot of found sound as well as most of the percussion (mainly treated door-slams). I also have an interesting graphical synth app for the iPod (Jasuto Pro) which I used to set up a patch with some parameters driven by the iPod's accelerometer. (See photo.) So with the recorder running, and the synth app playing through the car stereo, I just drove.

The iPod app created the weird whooshy swirly thing that runs through the entire song, just by responding to the motion of the car.

I programmed the basic riff in the same Droid synthesizer appliation I used on my first song this year, again assigning the X, Y and Z variables from the Droid's accelerometer to various parameters of the patch. I let it play and do its own bouncing around.

Best of all, the harmonica on this track is ... an iPod application. Yes, that's right: Benjamin McDowell's Harmonica app for the iPhone, which a musician friend of mine showed me at a bluegrass jam.

This song contains a brief sample: Yo La Tengo's version of John Cale's "Andalucia," playing through the car stereo at one point during the drive.


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Thanks to rosiebird, who wonderfully let me know that it was happening, but then sadly had to work and could not come, I saw Yoko Ono at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music last night, with mary_wroth. I don't even have words. Yoko is 76 years old -- in Catherine's usual delicate phraseology, "a little old lady." She moves haltingly and her dance moves look endearingly awkward as a result.

But nobody's going to help her across the street. Fronting a nine-person band led by Sean, her son with John, she launched a full-scale assault, tearing through old and new songs like a woman possessed. Her unbelievable voice is still powerful, and songs like "Walking On Thin Ice" (the song she and John were working on the night he was killed, probably the single best dance record of the eighties, one that Nile Rodgers expressed significant admiration for and one that will change your opinion of John Lennon's guitar playing forever) rocked harder and kicked more ass than everything happening in every club in Billyburg last night. She did the entire first set, then a cast of guest starts paid tribute to her in the second set, ranging from Bette Midler (whose version of "I'm Your Angel" was outrageously perfect) to Paul Simon and his son who played a gorgeous acoustic duet.

Sean -- whose standout moment for me was on bass, doing killer work on "Thin Ice" -- looks so much like his father it's scary. He and Gene Wene did an acoustic duet of "Oh Yoko," the sweet and silly Lennon composition that closes Imagine, that was utterly heart-rending.

The best part of this show, though, was the fact that the followup to that sweet moment was the appearance of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, who wrenched terrifying noises out of twin electric guitars, effected and fed back into a wall of noise, while Yoko sang "Mulberry," the song from her 2001 album Blueprint For a Sunrise about her wartime childhood experiences trying to find enough food for herself and her younger siblings. Her ululating, shrieking vocals melded so perfectly with the guitar pyrotechnics that you could not tell them apart; Kim and Thurston kept exchanging glances of astonishment at what they were all doing together.

The show closed with a set by the original Plastic Ono Band: Klaus Voorman, the bass player who drew the cover of Revolver; session legend Jim Keltner on drums*, and Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Sean played his father's part, opening with an outstanding vocal on the classic "Yer Blues." Afterward he said that during rehearsal the night before, Clapton had shown him how to properly play Lennon's slurred guitar part on the original.

They followed that up with "Death oF Samantha," from Yoko's 1972 Approximately Infinite Universe which was not a Plastic Ono Band album, but Clapton killed it with a tight rhythm and incredible leads, dueting with Yoko's voice. They closed out with "Don't Worry Kyoko (Mummy's Only Looking For Her Hand In the Snow)," one of the songs from the second side of the Live Peace In Toronto album that most people don't play. Clapton reprised his avant-blues pyrotechnics and Sean did his best on John's slide part, which he said Clapton had given him some tips on. Yoko rode the tide of noise like a surfer with a chainsaw: graceful, flowing, astonishing, and dangerous.

I wish they'd had the courage to end the show the way the 1969 concert ended, with Lennon and Clapton leaning their still-sounding guitars against their amps, and leaving the stage as the feedback shrieked. Instead we got the obligatory stage full of stars (sans Clapton, who was incredibly respectful in his supporting role) singing "Give Peace a Chance." But even that had its moments, especially going into the third verse which Sean and Yoko were going to sing together. "Mom, this is our verse," Sean called out, trying to get Yoko's attention. "Mom, this is us now!"

*I told Catherine last night that this was the band that performed at the Live Peace In Toronto concert. That's not true; the drummer there was another British session legend, Alan White. Keltner played on the twin Plastic Ono Band albums that John and Yoko released in 1970.


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On Wednesday I posted my fifth song for February Album Writing Month, "People Will Not Realize the Peril." I started every previous FAWM (hard to believe this is my fourth!) with a song about snow. The first year was "Song For a Snowy Sunday Night," about sitting in the bar where I now host my weekly jam, talking to the quite adorably snarky bartender about a bad breakup. In 2008 I wrote a song (which I can't find online at the moment) about a drive to Pennsyvlania in a snowstorm, and in 2009 I wrote a song about a snowstorm in St. John's, which remains a good song despite the circumstances that surrounded it.

This new song is, like most of my 2010 efforts, nothing like the earlier songs. It may be the weirdest one I've done yet. Late Wednesday night, when the snow was still falling, I turned off all the lights and sat by the window where my music setup is, started up my effects rig, and recorded some live harmonitronica. By which I mean, I started playing harmonica through the rig (starting with a low G and later switching to a G chromatic), using two different kinds of delay, and several looping pedals to capture and replay different pieces of what I was playing. I overlaid it and created the music you hear in this song, live.

Then I pulled the result into GarageBand and edited it down to about three and half minutes (the originaly was more than 15 minutes). Earlier in the day I'd recorded the National Weather Service radio station for a while, with the robot voice reading the weather advisories and warnings. I took bits and pieces of that and looped/arranged/panned/effected them, and this is the result.

mikeskliar called it a "wintertime Revolution #9," but I hope that's not true. If nothing else, it's shorter, and less complex. All you're hearing is one harmonica track, recorded live, and some edited weather robot voice.

I don't want to jinx this, but I'm beginning to think this will be my first FAWM that actually results in an album. That's right, I think that sometime in March I'm going to put together an album of harmonitronica. So if you think this is bad when it's free, wait til you have to pay for it!

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I woke up this morning to a news report about Sarah Palin's speech to the Tea Party convention. And I heard the sound of jackboots. So my fourth FAWM song is "I Am So Proud To Be An American (That Hopey Changey Stuff)." It's excerpts from her speech, including processed and looped mob howling, over an appropriately relentless drum pattern, with a harmonica part recorded live through my effects rig.

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Introducing ... harmonitronica. As some of you may remember, I was experimenting with some electronica approaches last year, and I'll be going much farther in that direction this year. I started writing this song and programming the drum loop last night, then recorded a synth drone today (more about that in a moment). After that, it was all harmonica and vocals. I spent much more time on it than I'd planned, but I like it, although it's not what I'd call musical.

The lyrics are somewhat incidental, but more prosaic in origin than they might sound. The jam I run on Sundays is in a bar with a fireplace, and on many Sunday nights, I am, in fact, smelling like smoke. And I was waiting up for a phone call last night ... from my main consulting client, to let me know whether or not to launch a new web site.

Oh, and the synthesizer part ... that's my Droid. Yes, I'm playing my phone. It's got an interesting little synth application, which lets you program some parameters to follow the physical motion of the phone. So I basically built a weird patch, then recorded it playing a single note, while waving it around like a nut case. That track runs through almost the entire song, alongside the higher-pitched weird thing which is actually a small piece of the opening harmonica wail, looped. You'll probably hear more from the Droid as well as my iPod Touch and, of course, the vintage analog synthesizer I bought in Tucson at Christmas.

Above is a photo of my music setup for FAWM this year, right by the window. I'll talk more about the effects rig on the floor, but that's where most of the harmonitronicking happens. I'm using the Zoom H4N as an audio interface for the laptop (it doubles as a room mic, which is useful, although not for this stuff).

More songs to come. But now, sleep.

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If you know me, you know that my musical taste is pathologically eclectic. Today, I'm listening to June Carter Cash and Will the Circle Be Unbroken and things like that. Yesterday I was listening to Brian Eno and John Cale.

I'm not the only one with strange tastes like this -- that transition was not nearly as weird as it sounds, and was sparked by, among other things, the arrival of a rare 45RPM single that I won on ebay last week: a recording of Brian Eno singing June's song, "Ring Of Fire."Even though Eno is one of the founding fathers of electronica and ambient music, the music closest to his heart is much simpler, and I've written previously about his love for harmony singing and simple songs.

The arrival of the 45 coincided with a friend pointing out an episode of This American Life in which the lovely and snarky Sarah Vowell argues, convincingly, that Johnny and June were the great love story of the 20th century. There are other possibilities of course, even in music -- Tammi dying in Marvin's arms, for one -- but the length and depth of their relationship, their tenderness and toughness, the challenges they overcame, the life they built together, was really amazing. And no one's better suited to talk about that than Sarah Vowell.

Tomorrow is the first day of February, and you all know what that means. So, I thought I'd jump the gun a bit by posting a non-original song. This is a Bill Monroe tune, the Lonesome Moonlight Waltz. A great fiddler who comes to the jam I host almost every week plays it frequently, and I invariably screw it up. The chords are quite complicated for a fiddle tune, and the melody is somewhat tricky in that it deceives you into thinking you should use one harmonica position when in fact you should use another. So I finally sat down and learned it for real, and since I love the tune so much I recorded it. Not really for posterity so much as to remind myself of how to play it.

And, a very deliberately buried lede: After approximately four years of thinking "I really should" and a few months of sporadic work, I have finally updated my web site. Check out the new kenficara.com. I haven't done a links page or credits page yet but mary_wroth deserves very special credit; the photo I'm using as the main icon on the site is one she took last year at the Good Coffeehouse.


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