Amber Run: Pop Done Right

Let me tell you about a band you probably haven’t heard of. Amber Run is an indie pop/rock band from Nottingham. I accidentally discovered them a little over a year ago on some random Google Play station (yes, I might have said, “OK Google, play good music” just to see what would happen).

Amber Run’s debut album 5AM has probably been one of my most listened to albums since I discovered it. Their latest release, For a Moment, I was Lost, came out last month. It is a bit of a departure from from the first. I won’t be reviewing these albums. This post is more an examination of what they’re doing right.

Most pop songs follow a standard pattern. There is an introduction followed by a sparse instrumentation first verse, a chorus, a heavier instrumentation second verse, a bigger repeat of the chorus, a bridge that changes things up, a climax/guitar solo, end on the chorus.

A lot of popular songs on the radio often do a poor job at this. I think this attention to detail on building up instrumentation and texture is a lost art. It has to be interesting and subtle. Sudden instrument or pattern changes can feel unnatural and jarring. The song will lose its flow. This means a lot of modern pop bands skip this.

Certainly on 5AM, Amber Run nail this. It’s somewhat hard to describe in words. All these little transitions between all the segments I listed above are done with incredible finesse. I think of it like watching a flower bloom in time lapse. It goes from a closed, tight sound and opens up in one smooth motion. All of a sudden we have a much bigger and completely different thing. But it makes perfect sense how we got there.

Let’s break one of their songs down from that album:

It begins with a bass pluck on the beat every beat and the guitar has a sparse chord pattern. The drums play a very simple and straightforward rock pattern. There’s some light electronic sound enhancements. As we end the first verse, we get this “bloom” into something new. The drum pattern gets slightly more complicated with a harder snare on 2 and 4. The sound fills out with full guitar chords. The bass does basically the same thing, but it shouldn’t be all that different at this point.

We then get the next bloom with a more dance rhythm in the drums. The band fades down in a sort of fake out to the bridge transition. Here the feel is completely different but in a natural way. The chord progression is the same, but the pattern is a simplified version from the opening. We only have high hat in the drums.

But then it blooms again into this vastly different thing. This thing keeps building by adding texture through vocal harmony. This doesn’t exactly follow the pattern I wrote above, but what I’d strongly suggest is listening to the beginning and end without the middle. The song progresses so much that it’s kind of hard to believe it could change that much, but in the context of the song everything flowed as if it couldn’t have progressed in a different way.

And pretty much every Amber Run song on this album plays out this way. These little bloom transitions bring you to completely unexpected places without it being sudden or jarring. This leads to some truly stunning moments.

The other thing I really like about Amber Run is how they develop their smooth melodies with complicated harmonization. Melodic development is one of those concepts taught in music composition school almost immediately, but you rarely hear it in pop music. Often bands just repeat their melodies once they have them.

Amber Run establish their melodies, but then when they repeat they sometimes get embellished with extra notes (the most common type of development). But sometimes they use more complicated development by inserting pieces of the melody in a different part of the scale and extending the melodic line by a measure or two (a technique called fragmentation). If done properly, this adds tension and direction to a song unlike many pop songs that feel very static.

I could go on about many other things they do well, but I think that’s enough. Here’s a song off their new album. Listen for those brilliant blooms into new ideas and how the melody embellishes and adds intensity and direction. The song starts so subtle and ends at such an intense place. It’s quite remarkable:

Whiplash and the Externalization of the Resistance

Steven Pressfield wrote a book called The War of Art back in 2002. Since then, it has risen to cult classic status in various art circles. The book spends some time defining something called the Resistance, and then it turns into a drill sergeant to push you through the Resistance. I want to argue that the movie Whiplash is a direct externalization of this concept.

The Resistance is that internal force that tries to prevent you from doing work. If you’re a runner, maybe you tell yourself that those mile repeats you have to get up at 6:00 a.m. to do before work aren’t going to benefit you that much. Sleep would help you be more productive the rest of the day. That’s the Resistance.

If you’re a musician, maybe you tell yourself doing scales with the metronome on one more day in a row won’t be that helpful. You could just play through some etudes to work on your “lyricism.” That’s the Resistance. Maybe you’re a writer, and you want to read one more book on ancient Rome to make sure your setting is completely accurate before you waste words writing something wrong. That’s the Resistance.

Most people that read Pressfield’s book can really identify with this and understand it from personal experience. Where he got some criticism was in how extreme he took this idea. He basically says the better you get and the closer to great art you get, the worse the Resistance will get. How bad is the Resistance? Well, it was easier for Hitler to start WWII than to face the blank canvas.

I get how people took offense to this historical inaccuracy, but the point wasn’t accuracy. It was to emphasize, metaphorically, just how devious and strong the Resistance can be. People will look for any excuse to not work.

This brings me to the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. This movie is so fantastic. It is about a drummer who wants to be the best. He, of course, encounters the Resistance.

The way I interpret the movie is through Pressfield’s book. The movie makes the Resistance external, so that everyone can see exactly what this kid’s excuses could be if he succumbed to them. As he gets better, the Resistance gets worse and worse, until pretty much the most ridiculous thing ever happens to him (I’ll spoil it later with warning).

Here’s an example from early on in the movie:

Oh, you practiced so hard that your hands were bleeding? Guess it’s time to stop and heal up. No! That’s the Resistance. If you really want it bad enough, you won’t let something tiny like that stop you. He comes up with the idea to dunk his hands in ice water to numb them and lessen the bleeding so he can keep going.

I know what you’re thinking. Plenty of people become the best in the world in their art form or athletics without going to these extremes. But I think this misses the point the movie is making. Like the Hitler comment above, the point isn’t to be “literal.” The movie is metaphorically externalizing the Resistance.

Imagine how ineffective it would be for this scene to have the Resistance appear internally. His internal voice-over says, “This is hard. I want to stop.” Boring. Unenlightened. The Resistance will always present itself as legitimate excuses, which is what makes the movie brilliant.

BEGIN SPOILER (highlight it to read)
At the climax, the kid is in a car accident and gets whiplash. He is basically trapped inside an upside-down smashed car, bleeding from tons of wounds. If ever there was a legitimate excuse to stop, this would be it. But no, he claws himself free from the car and runs to the concert where he is supposed to perform and starts playing on stage.
END SPOILER

It would again be a mistake to write this off as totally ridiculous. The point is that the Resistance will keep getting worse as you get closer to being the best. The movie had to up the Resistance to these levels to show just how strong the feeling of having an excuse will get. It’s metaphor; it’s not literal. And I think people’s problem with the movie and Pressfield’s book is they don’t understand that the only way to teach people this lesson is to go over-the-top like this.

On Experiencing Bon Iver at 20

Bon Iver announced a new album to be released later this year. I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what it was like to hear his first album when I was twenty.

I think most generations have some major cultural experience that it is hard to understand if you weren’t experiencing it in a particular age range, in a particular setting, and so on. This age range is probably about 16-24, maybe a little bigger depending on what it is, how much maturity the person has, and other circumstances again.

The reason you can’t be too young is that you’ll miss the “original,” and then those influences will permeate across a bunch of other artists, making it hard to understand what was so good about the original. I can’t for the life of me understand what is so great about the Beatles, but I imagine a young adult hearing them for the first time would have been as mind boggling as when I first heard Bon Iver.

There are a few reasons you can’t be too old. First, you get a little cynical about culture and art. Even when something groundbreaking comes around, you’ll find ways to compare it to other things you know: nothing original can be created. Second, life gets in the way. Maybe you listen to music while working out or driving, but you will rarely go in a dark room by yourself for 45 minutes when family, pets, children, jobs, housework, etc all demand something from you. This distracted listening won’t let you get in the right frame of mind for the experience.

Let’s set the stage. I was in music school for a while leading up to this. At the release of the album, I had changed majors, but a large portion of my friends were still music majors. We mostly listened to pretentious underground indie music: standard band instrumentation but using interesting, high-level composition techniques we liked to experiment with in our own music writing.

Before Bon Iver, the scene consisted of bands like Arctic Monkeys, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Animal Collective, etc. If you haven’t heard of some of these, they have big, highly-processed sounds. They use sampling and electronics. They tend to be bombastic and even grating.

The story behind Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is that he had a very bad breakup, fell ill, and in general was depressed about his life’s prospects. He went into the woods of Wisconsin in total isolation (think Thoreau). Over the next year (I didn’t look up the exact time frame), he wrote and recorded the songs that would make up his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s hard to explain just how shocking this album was. All the top bands kept shifting towards more and more technology as the technology got better. Each album had to be bigger and more grandiose than the last. Bon Iver went backwards. It is low-fi recording equipment, and acoustic guitar, and his voice. You can hear the creak of his floorboards at points. The whole thing is done falsetto, creating an even more fragile sound.

He poured everything into the album, and we understood it. We felt it. It sounds crazy, but I might have cried the first time I heard it. Ten years later, I still get chills listening to it. We talked about it all the time. We said: this is what music could be. This is why we love music. It can change people.

I know it’s one of those idealistic things people say that are rarely true, and that’s why it’s so hard to explain the moment. If you weren’t there under the right circumstances, then you missed it. I know people now that listen to it and say, “This is the most terrible crap I’ve ever heard.” I honestly get that. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Bon Iver forever changed the landscape of music. His influence is everywhere, and that makes listening to the original album sound dated and unoriginal.

Here’s one of the greatest moments on the album:

The album steadily builds to this track. The song itself talks about his pain. It builds into a climax on the line “What might have been lost.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to—wondering what could have been, what if I did this one thing differently, how much is gone forever.

The subdued nature of the album up to this point doesn’t prepare you for how big and wild and raw the climax will be. This line leads into a powerful, dense chord with his primal wail of agony over it. One might say it is like a howling wolf.

This isn’t Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” where the words are sad. It isn’t just lip service in the form of a song. Vernon lets it all out in that moment. It’s almost tempting to turn the song off, because it’s too personal. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness that raw emotion to keep going.

That’s the connection he made with us. That’s what it was like to experience Bon Iver at twenty.

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise

The Dear Hunter is a band from Providence, RI, and I think they are criminally under-appreciated. It is essentially the work of one musician/composer: Casey Crescenzo. In 2006, they released the first album in the “Act” series, a six-album long epic story. Last year, in September, the fourth album in the series released. I listened to it a lot back then but never got around to reviewing it.

I’m not sure how to describe this thing. Musically, it spans everything. This is good, because it is, in a sense, modeled on a rock opera or musical. Since the story goes through all sorts emotions, the songs must reflect this. This variety is one of the albums greatest assets, especially considering its epic length.

The album opens with a dense a capella song that has the sound of Queen. It quickly turns to a more traditional prog rock style. The second track is an ambitious song with full orchestra and a giant climax. It almost feels like it gives away too much too early, but the fact that there is still an hour left lets things settle for a bit.

We get several tracks that sound like the more upbeat Arcade Fire songs circa their first album. There are some hauntingly beautiful slower songs consisting of delicate string work, acoustic instruments, and light electronics. Crescenzo’s sense of tension, pacing, and climax is impeccable throughout. There are other songs that are straight-up fun and have a bit of a Panic at the Disco flare.

Let’s turn to the lyrics. Despite the fact that this is a “story,” the lyrics are hugely cryptic. It reminds me a bit of the poetic lyricism of Joanna Newsom (though musically not at all). There is a lot of symbolism and abstraction, but the underlying emotion of the story still comes through.

While delivering this story, the lyrics remain deeply meditative and philosophical. He touches on the nature of life, Hegelian cycles, what it means to have purpose, death, and on and on. It’s always a striking experience to be in complete rapture by a particular moment of a song only to hear a lyric you hadn’t paid attention to before. Most recently, “Just how long can I stay in illusions formed here long before me” jumped out at me.

This album has it all. The songs manage to be catchy and fun while broaching serious and deep topics. I give it a 9/10. I’ve been listening to it since September and still find new things all the time.

Here’s a sample:

Thoughts on Björk’s Vulnicura

Björk has been quite a polarizing figure throughout the years. I used to absolutely love her music in the early 2000’s. I thought Vespertine was a brilliant culmination in all the ideas she had been exploring.

It was an album with palpable emotional output. It pushed the boundaries of accompaniment with grandiose and experimental orchestration combined with electronica. The chord progressions were otherworldly in their strangeness. The melodies wound around in huge, tangled phrases.

Iceland is known for its musical creative geniuses, but this was something special even for Björk. Then came Medúlla. That album terrified me. It not only marked a change in direction to a more aggressive and wild sound, but the album only used voice. It was a wildly successful experiment in just what a human voice could achieve.

Björk basically fell off my radar at that point. I’d periodically notice something new come out, but it felt safe and sterile. I couldn’t get too excited about it. Sure it was more interesting and original than most of the other things released by mainstream artists, but she had also turned to a more pop sound. Her collaborations were still pretty great through these years (especially the one with The Dirty Projectors).

It just came to my attention, nearly a year after its release, that she came out with her ninth album Vulnicura. I decided to give it a chance, because I can’t quite shake how much her earlier stuff influenced me.

I’m glad I did. This album returns to the Vespertine sound in many of the aspects I listed above. The emotional content is back. This is essentially a break-up album, but not like any you’ve heard before. This goes right to heart with its poetic lyrics and winding, understated melodies.

There are a few standout tracks. “Black Lake” occurs as roughly the half-way point, and it really focuses the other songs on how painful the experience was. It is only string and voice for over 4 minutes. It then ramps up with sparse but hard hitting electronica to bring depth to the song:

The other highlight is “Atom Dance” where Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons makes an appearance. Their two voices create a huge mass of agony.

My one complaint is that some of the earlier songs use repetition effectively on the first few listens, but once you’ve heard it five or so times, it feels like too much.

Overall, this is an excellent album by Björk, and if you’ve been turned off by her lately, you might still want to give this one a try.

Thoughts on Joanna Newsom’s Divers

I’ve made it no secret that I think Joanna Newsom is one of the most important living musicians. After five years, she has finally released her newest album Divers. I must begin this post with a ton of caveats. Writing about Newsom is difficult, because her albums are so complex. The melody, rhythm, and harmony could be analyzed for all their intricacies or for how they interact with the lyrics. The lyrics could be analyzed on their own. I can’t even get to a fraction of it, so I won’t try.

To me, this album is the pinnacle of what she has been working towards. It contains some long-form highly metaphorical harp/voice pieces like she did on Ys. It has some more modern pieces like on Have One on Me. And it has some very traditional folk style pieces like The Milk-Eyed Mender.

The album is unlike most in that all the songs must be taken together to get the whole experience. They are inextricably tied together. This post will mostly be about things I hear that relate to the main themes explored.

The main ideas have to do with the elusiveness of time (it moves both forward and backward? more on this later) and the impermanence and cyclic nature of life. One thing that jumps out after several listens is that the album itself is a cycle. The last word of the album cuts off without finishing, and the word gets finished as the first word of the album. The first song starts with birth and the last song ends with what could be considered death.

Now I’ll go through the places where time comes up. In “Anecdotes” there are two references. “Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do” and “temporal infidelity” (a bizarre phrase that I love). In “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” we get “Time is smaller than Space is wide.” At the end of “The Things I Say” is a strange sound that I can only interpret as the sound of playing the song backwards. This is the first foreshadowing of the last song.

In “Divers” we get the theme of the backward motion of time again with “infinite regress” and “infinite backslide.” In “A Pin-Light Bent” the idea of “inversion” comes up several times, again giving a dual meaning to inverting the direction of time.

The last song, “Time, As a Symptom,” ties it all together. The entire song is about time. “Time passed hard,” “The river of time,” “Time moves both ways,” “Time is just a symptom of love,” and so on.

This last song is probably one of the best things she has ever written. For one, it must be listened to as the last track on the album. Part of its greatness is that all the songs leading up to it keep alluding to what is to come (as I think I demonstrated above). These ideas get in your subconscious and are ready to bear the impact of this piece.

It is also the only song on the album to have a big climax. It builds and builds until it explodes in a brilliant, exalted moment with the perfect words to summarize what the album is about: “Joy of life.”

I could go on and on about how I think certain songs relate to other ones, but as I’ve said before, I think her music is best not over-analyzed. It is so abstract and metaphorical that the best way to experience it is to let the image/sound combinations evoke feelings on their own. After repeated listens, you’ll start to notice how they fit together which will enhance the experience. This is what makes her so important. I don’t know of anyone else doing this type of thing (maybe The Dear Hunter).

I can’t recommend this album enough to anyone with a serious interest in music.

On Politically Correct Art Criticism

WARNING: This post will contain spoilers for many, many things.

I know this is a controversial topic, and I periodically keep coming back to it. But I can only read so many reviews that make these types of arguments before needing to say something myself. The main thesis of this post is that it is never a valid form of art criticism to say: this work is bad, because people with trait X ought not be portrayed doing Y.

Before going any further, I’d like to make the argument to show I understand the point of view I’m criticizing. Suppose Group X (women, blacks, gays, mentally ill, etc) has a negative stigma attached to it that manifests in real world discrimination. The claim is that making media that reinforces this incorrect stereotype causes measurable harm to society by perpetuating this discrimination indirectly. It also harms people in this group (particularly children) by not giving good role models to show the stereotype is not true.

I’ll even grant most of this argument by giving an anecdote from my own life. When I was growing up, I experienced a lot of frustration trying to find a positive portrayal of gay people in media. They either ended up dead from AIDS (Philadelphia, Longtime Companion, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Jeffrey), dead from gay bashing or suicide from bullying (Boys Don’t Cry, The Laramie Project, Brokeback Mountain, Defying Gravity, Bent), were pedophiles or molested as children (Mysterious Skin, L.I.E., Bad Education). It seemed the only option to live a life where something terrible wasn’t happening to you was to live a lie (Maurice, Far From Heaven, De-Lovely).

So believe me when I say I get that this style of criticism is coming from a good place. Here’s some examples of articles that use this argument from the recent past (I’ve read more, but didn’t save them anywhere). Avengers: Age of Ultron is bad because instead of having Black Widow killing men all the time, she also has a subplot of flirtation and romantic interests and concerns over her infertility. This pegs the whole movie into problematic territory, since group X (women) ought not be portrayed as caring about thing Y (men or having babies? more on this confusion later).

A recent, highly creative and interesting game Her Story was recently criticized for, can you guess? You’re wrong, because it has nothing to do with women! The game dared to allude to the main character having dissociative identity disorder (though many people believe she does not). The main character also committed a murder. Thus, it is clearly flawed because we ought not portray group X (mental disorder) doing thing Y (committing crimes).

And on it goes. Do you see the pattern? Let’s start with my opinion on the matter before breaking it down and giving better ways to go about this sort of thing. There is a divide between mass media and art. In the age of the internet, this divide is almost impossible to find. I think the argument for this type of criticism almost works for mass media. It fails miserably for art.

Art is art. No matter how good your motives, it is never, ever valid criticism to deride art because the artistic content has material you disagree with. To make that criticism is to say that certain topics are off limits for artists: a character with trait X can’t do thing Y. What if the character must do that thing in order for the art to be the best it can be?

It is hard to articulate exactly why this is not a valid form of criticism. The best way to invalidate it is to try to come up with any sort of plot where this type of criticism cannot be leveled against it. You can’t do it. You almost can by trying to make it have absolutely no conflict or drama. But as soon as any reasonably fleshed out character has any sort of conflict, you will be able to find a criticism of the above form. We’ll come back to this double standard with the Avengers example later.

Many people have embarrassed themselves by trying this exercise. The most prominent being Anita Sarkeesian who makes her living off criticizing video games from a feminist perspective. She sketched a game idea that she thought would be free from sexist tropes, but as soon as it appeared, people were able to throw her own tropes right back at her. It is easy to criticize, but to create something free from this form of criticism is impossible. That is why it is not valid. If it applies to everything, it applies to nothing.

The other reason is that these criticisms are nothing more than saying the work is not politically correct. When phrased this way I think everyone can agree it is poor criticism. An artist’s work is bad because it is not politically correct? When we see something like this, we should laugh at how lazy and dishonest this type of criticism is.

So where does this leave us? I think there is a valid way to raise these same issues. A valid form of criticism is to point out cliche and lazy uses of tropes. Doing this requires effort and justification. For example, in Her Story, if you try to phrase the criticism in these terms, it falls away as baseless. The use of dissociative identity disorder is done in an original way. In games, it is not a trope that mentally ill people are criminals. Such a subtle use of the disorder to create depth and thought-provoking moments is wholly original in games (and also it isn’t even clear the main character has the disorder!).

The Avengers example is a little more tricky. I alluded to a difference between mass media and art earlier, and something that grosses half a billion dollars enters the public consciousness in a way that an indie game does not. Maybe there is some ethical responsibility there. But I think this becomes much easier when we remind ourselves it is a superhero movie. The new Avengers movie could possibly be the least believable movie I’ve ever seen. It is hard to go a whole minute without thinking, wow, that is fake.

As I’ve pointed out, part of these types of arguments hinge on the idea that people will think the trope is real which will reinforce a harmful stereotype. Forgive me for not being able to put a kid who watches a teenager get beat up and tied to a fence to die because of who he is attracted to and thinks, “That could be me,” on the same footing as world where a human turns into a giant green killing machine and Thor exists. In other words, context matters.

But let’s get back on track. My main objection above is that this style of argument never ends. What could have been done differently? If Black Widow has children and a family, the complaint will be that the male superheros don’t have to split their time (though Hawkeye does!). This reinforces the idea that women can’t have it all but men can (or something? why has taking care of a family taken on such a negative stigma again?). But then if she doesn’t have children this reinforces the negative stereotype that if a woman has a career she won’t be able to have a family even if she wants one. Do you see how once you let this style of argument in, it never ends. It is lose-lose for the artist. The critic can complain no matter what choice is made.

If you want a real critique of Avengers you need only point to the cringeworthy damsel in distress trope that occurs 3/4 of the way through when Black Widow is the one captured and needs to be rescued. But for some reason, people focused on her romantic interests…

Anyway, I’m sick of reading these critiques that take this form. They had a bit more validity in the past when it was harder to find positive portrayals of certain groups of people. With our current technology of Hulu, Youtube, Netflix, Amazon, and on and on, it is just as easy to find the blockbuster as the indie film. Mass media doesn’t drown out diversity in the same way it used to. So let’s move on from this lazy, invalid form of art criticism to something more substantial.

Composers You Should Know Part 4

It’s been a while since the last “Composers You Should Know,” so let’s do another one. Recently Julia Wolfe’s piece Anthracite Fields won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. I had been planning on including Wolfe in this series anyway, because she is a founder of one of the most important contemporary music collectives: Bang on a Can. If you don’t know about this, it came about in the late 80’s in New York to put on contemporary music concerts and remains an important source of new music concerts around the world.

Wolfe has written a large number of pieces for basically every ensemble, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll go through three pieces in chronological order. Recordings of these pieces can be found for free at her website if you want to follow along. Wolfe has a very clear minimalist strain, but it could be said that a change happened in 1994 with her piece “Lick.”

Once the piece gets going, it almost feels like John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” with the style of minimalism it uses (as opposed to Reich, which is surprising considering the East coast/West coast divide in minimalism). But the important change is the introduction of pop culture elements, most prominently rock and funk.

The driving bass and drums simulate rock, and the guitar and sax introduce some funk riffs. All of this gets tied up in minimalism, but it isn’t that simple. Large sections of the piece lose all sense of time in a confusing mess. The work was groundbreaking and set the stage for how her style would progress in the following years.

In no way do I presume to speak for her or oversimplify anything, but we get a major change in the years after September 11, 2001. The next piece we will look at is “My Beautiful Scream,” which is a concerto for amplified string quartet. This piece is a direct response to the attacks and simulates a slow-motion scream. It almost completely throws off the driving rhythms in favor of building suspense through sustained dissonance.

It is a chilling and moving experience to listen to. The driving beat is part of her musical syntax, so it isn’t completely absent in this work. Here it feel more like pulses, quavers, and bouts of horror. Before, the technique was used to push the piece forward which made the listener feel light and floating along. Here we get a pulse that struggles, as if trapped, trying to stay above the dense sustained notes engulfing it.

In general, her music had been getting more complicated and dissonant, but after 2003 there is a sense that the tie to “Lick” is all but severed. The evolution happened little-by-little to arrive at darker, more severe, and emotionally rich pieces. That driving rhythm remained, but its purpose changed. Listen to “Cruel Sister,” “Fuel,” and “Thirst,” and then compare to earlier works like “Lick” and “Believing.”

This brings us to present day with “Anthracite Fields,” which is a study of the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania. It is a work for chorus and chamber ensemble. The choral parts are set to historical texts including lists of names of people who died mining. I’ve only heard the fourth movement in full from the website, but you can find pieces of other movements in the short documentary “The Making of Anthracite Fields.”

The piece is chilling at times and soaring and beautiful at others. There’s certainly some folk and Americana influence as well. I’m pretty excited to hear a recording. The work makes sense in her evolution as a composer and sounds like it is the most diverse and wide-ranging yet.

Overall, one of Julia Wolfe’s lasting achievements is her ability to blend and push the boundaries of rock and classical elements, but her finished products are so much more than that.

Lossless Compression by Example Part 1: Lossy Methods

Since I’m into music, it often comes up there is a growing trend: music is sold digitally and as vinyl. Sometimes I’ll hear people mistakenly call the vinyl trend “retro” or “trendy” or “hip” or whatever. But if you actually ask someone why they prefer records, they’ll probably tell you the sound quality is better.

I thought I’d do a series on lossless compression and try to keep everything to general concepts or example. Let’s start with the terminology. First, media files can be large, and back in the day when computers didn’t have basically infinite space, compression was an important tool for reducing the size of a media file.

Compression is basically an algorithm to take the size of a file and makes it smaller. The most obvious method for doing this is lossy compression. This just means you lose information. The goal of such an algorithm is to only lose information that is “unimportant” and “won’t be noticed.”

A far more surprising method of compression is called lossless. At first it seems paradoxical. How can you make the file size smaller, but not lose any information? Isn’t the file size basically the information? We won’t get to this in this post. Teaser for next time!

Now lets talk about why people don’t like lossy compressed audio files. There is one quick and dirty thing you can do to immediately lose information and reduce the size of an audio file. This is dynamic range (DR) compression.

Think of a soundwave. The amplitude basically determines how loud it is. You can literally compress the wave to have a smaller amplitude without changing any other musical qualities. But this is terrible! One of the most important parts of music is the DR. A moving, soaring climax will not have the same effect if the entire build up to it is the same loudness.

This is such a controversial compression technique that many people switch to vinyl purely for DR reasons. There is a whole, searchable online database of albums to find out the DR and whether it is consider good, acceptable, or bad. Go search for your favorite albums. It is kind of fun to find out how much has been squashed out even in lossless CD format vs vinyl! (e.g. System of a Down’s Toxity is DR 11 [acceptable] on vinyl and DR 6 [truly bad] on lossless CD).

The other most common lossy compression technique for audio is a bit more involved, but it actually changes the music, so it is worth thinking about. Let’s actually make a rough algorithm for doing this (there currently exist much better and subtler forms of the following, but it amounts to the same thing).

This is a bit of a silly example, but I went to http://www.wavsource.com to get a raw wav file to work with. I grabbed one of the first ones, an audio sample from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here is the data visualization of the sound waves and the actual clip:

daisy

Daisy

One thing we can do is the Fast Fourier Transform. This will take these sound waves and get rid of the time component. Normally you’ll want to make a “moving window,” so you keep track of some time. For example, we can see that from 0.5 sec to 1.5 sec is one “packet.” We should probably transform that first, then move to the next.

The FFT leaves us just with the frequencies that occur and how loud they are. I did this with python’s scypy.fftpack:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import scipy.fftpack as sfft
import numpy as np
from scipy.io import wavfile

fs, data = wavfile.read('daisy.wav')
b=[(ele/2**8.)*2-1 for ele in data]
c = sfft.fft(b)
d = len(c)/2
plt.plot(abs(c[:(d-1)]),'r')
plt.show()

compressed = []
for ele in c:
	if abs(ele) > 50:
		compressed.append(ele)
	else:
		compressed.append(0)

compressed = np.asarray(compressed)
plt.plot(abs(compressed[:(d-1)]),'r')
plt.show()

e = sfft.ifft(compressed)

daisyfreq

Ignore the scales which were changed just to make everything more visible but not normalized. The most crude thing we could do is set a cutoff and just remove all frequencies that we assume will be inaudible anyway:

daisyfreqcompressed

If we do this too much, we are going to destroy how natural the sound is. As I’ve explained before, all sounds occurring naturally have tons of subtle overtones. You often can’t explicitly hear these, so they will occur below the cutoff threshold. This will bring us towards a “pure” tone which will sound more synthetic or computer generated. This is probably why no one actually compresses this way. This example was just to give an idea of one way it could be done (to finish it off you can now just inverse FFT and write to wav).

A slightly better compression technique would be to take short time intervals and multiply the peak frequency by a bump function. This will shrink all the extraneous frequencies without completely removing the robustness of the sound. This is how some lossy compression is actually done. There are other more fun things with wavelets which would take several posts to describe and the goal is to get to lossless compression.

I hope that helps to see what lossy compression is, and that it can cause some serious harm when done without care. With care, you will still lose enough sound quality that many music aficionados avoid mp3 and digital downloads completely in favor of vinyl.

Next time we’ll tackle the seemingly paradoxical concept of lossless compression.

On Modern Censorship

I don’t want to wade into the heavy politics of things like GamerGate, MetalGate, and so on, but those movements certainly got me thinking about these issues a few months ago. A few days ago, I read a New York Times article about twitter shaming people out of their careers over basically nothing. This brought some clarity to my thoughts on the issue.

I’ll try to keep examples abstract, at the cost of readability, to not spur the wrath of either side. I haven’t done a post on ethics in a while, and this is an interesting and difficult subject.

First, let me say there are clear cases where censorship is good. For example, children should not be allowed to watch pornography (of course, there could be a dispute over the age where this becomes blurry, but everyone has an age where it is too young). There are also clear cases where censorship is bad. For example, a group of concerned Christian parents succeeds in a petition to ban Harry Potter from their children’s school.

Many arguments about censorship boil down to this question of societal harm. To start our thought experiment, let’s get rid of that complication and assume that whatever work is in question is fine. In other words, we will assume that censorship is bad in the sense that the marketplace of ideas should be free. If something offends you, then don’t engage with it. You shouldn’t go out of your way to make it so no one can engage with it.

In the recent controversies, there has been an underlying meta-dialogue that goes something like this:

Person A: If you don’t like the sexism/racism/homophobia/etc (SRHE) in this game/book/movie/etc (GBME), then don’t get the media. Stop trying to censor it so that I can’t engage with it. I happen to enjoy it.

Person B: I’m not trying to censor anything. I’m just raising social awareness as to the SRHE. It is through media that these types of things are perpetuated, and the first step to lessen this is to raise awareness.

What made this issue so difficult for me is that I understand both points of view. Person A is reiterating the idea that if you don’t like something, then don’t engage with it. There is no need to ruin it for everyone else. It is also hard to argue with Person B if they are sincere. Maybe they agree that censorship is bad, but they want to raise awareness as to why they don’t like the media in question.

The main point of this post is to present a thought experiment where Person B is clearly in the wrong. The reason to do this is that I think the discussion often misses a vital point: in our modern age of twitter storms and online petitions, Person B can commit what might be called “negligent censorship.” Just like in law, negligence is not an excuse that absolves you of the ethical consequences of censoring something.

Thought experiment: Small Company starts making its GBME. In order to fund the project, they get the support of Large Company that is well-known for its progressive values. In the age of the internet, news of this new GBME circulates early.

Person B happens to be a prominent blogger and notices some SRHE in the GBME. Note, for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter whether the SRHE is real or imagined (though, full disclosure, I personally believe that people whose job it is to sniff out SRHE in media tend to exaggerate [possibly subconsciously] SRHE to find it where it maybe doesn’t really exist).

Let’s make this very clear cut. Person B knows that they can throw their weight around enough to get a big enough twitter storm to scare the Large Company backer out of funding the Small Company’s project. Person B does this, and sure enough, the project collapses and never gets finished or released.

This is clear censorship. Person B acted with the intent to squash the GBME. Sadly, Person B can still claim the nobler argument given earlier, and it is hard to argue against that. I think this is part of what infuriates Person A so much. You can’t prove their interior motivation was malicious.

But I think you don’t need to. Now let’s assume Person B does all of this with the good-natured intention of merely “raising awareness.” The same outcome occurs. Your intent shouldn’t matter, because your actions led to the censorship (and also hurt the livelihood of some people which has its own set of moral issues).

If you write something false about someone that leads to their harm, even if you didn’t realize it, you can still be charged with libel. Negligence is not an excuse. I’m not saying it is a crime to do what Person B did (for example, the SRHE may actually be there so the statements Person B made were true). I’m only making an analogy for thinking about negligence.

You can claim you only were trying to raise awareness, but I claim that you are ethically still responsible. This is especially true now that we’ve seen this happen in real life many times. If Person B is an adult, they should know writing such things often has this effect.

To summarize, if you find yourself on Person B’s side a lot, try to get inside the head of Small Company for a second. Whether intended or not, Person B caused their collapse. It is not an excuse to say Small Company should have been more sensitive to the SRHE in their GBME if they wanted to stay afloat.

This is blaming the victim. If Large Company said upfront they wouldn’t back the project if Small Company made their proposed GBME, it would be Small Company’s fault for taking the risk. If a group of people who don’t agree with the content of the GBME cause it to collapse, it is (possibly negligent) censorship.

Under our assumption that censorship is bad, I think Person B has serious ethical issues and Person A is clearly in the right. The problem is that in real life, Person B tries to absolve their wrong by implicitly appealing to a utilitarian argument.

A (non-malicious) Person B will truly believe that the short term harm of censoring is outbalanced by the long-term good of fighting SRHE. If the evidence was perfectly clear about the causation/correlation between SRHE in mass media and real life, Person B would have a pretty good ethical argument for their position.

What makes this such a contested issue is that we are in some middle ground. There is correlation, which may or may not be significant. But who knows about causation. Maybe it is the other way around. The SRHE in society is coming out in art, because it is present in society: not the other way around that Person B claims.

This is why, even though, with my progressive values, I am highly sympathetic to the arguments and sentiments of Person B, I have to side with Person A most of the time. Person B has a moral responsibility to make sure they raise awareness in a way that does not accidentally lead to censorship. This has become an almost impossible task with our scandal obsessed social media.

For the debates to calm down a bit, I think side B has to understand side A a bit better. I think most people on side A understand the concerns of side B, but they just don’t buy the argument. Many prominent speakers on side B dismiss side A as a bunch of immature white boys who don’t understand their media has SRHE in it. Side B needs to realize that there is a complicated ethical argument against their side, even if it rarely gets articulated.

I’m obviously not calling for self-censorship (which is always the catch-22 of speaking about these issues), but being a public figure comes with certain responsibilities. Here are the types of things I think a prominent writer on SRHE issues should think more critically about before writing:

1. Do I influence a lot of people’s opinion about SRHE topics? For example, having 200K twitter followers might count here.
2. Do my readers expect me to point out SRHE in GBME on a regular basis? If so, you might be biased towards finding it. Ask someone familiar with the GBME whether you are taking clips or quotes out of context to strengthen your claims before making a public accusation.
3. Are my words merely bringing awareness to an issue, or am I also making a call to action to censor the GBME?