An Exuberant New Thing

Sly and Famly StoneA few months back, I found an old album by Sly and the Family Stone. They were a group I liked, but I never knew much about them. Next year marks fifty years (!) since Sly formed the multi-racial band, so now’s a good time to dig deeper.

By 1967, Sly (a boyhood friend misspelled Sylvester as Slyvester; the nickname stuck with him) was 26 years old, a San Francisco disc jockey on a soul station who played music from both Black and White artists. Sly had already produced several minor hit songs, formed and performed in several local band including the multi-ethnic Viscaynes. Times were changing very quickly—especially in the Bay Area—and Sly was well-connected because his influence via radio station KSOL was growing.

The first album by Sly and the Family Stone didn’t do much on the charts, but it’s clever, innovative, funky, and a whole lotta fun. The first single, “Underdog” starts out with a slow version of “Frere Jacques,” then rolls into a rap-like rhythm supported by power horns and a chanting chorus. There’s some gospel in there, too. Listen: this is fifty years old, but it sounds fresh, not at all dated. “I Cannot Make It” is the other popular track from 1967’s A Whole New Thing, and it opens with a vocal similar to “I am the Walrus” (same year). And then, the hits start coming—you probably know just about every one of them because they’ve never really left the world stage.

The fun begun with “Dance to the Music”—#8 on the Billboard Pop Chart and #9 on the Billboard R&B Chart—“listen to the voices!” with that screaming voice, the little bobbing a capella voices, the low down deep voice, the jumping back and forth between Stax, Motown, psychedelia, the big horn section, the get-up-and-dance, the complex jumping back and forth between musical ideas, in just three minutes. These guys are having such a great time making a new kind of music—and the public loves it! Black listeners (#9 on the Billboard R&B charts) and White listeners, too (#8 on the Billboard Pop Charts). The energy is so rich, so contagious—and still so free from the rigidity of corporate music production (that comes later). “Fun” from 1968 keeps the grove — “When I party, I party hearty, fun is on my mind, put a smile upon your face…there’s a sister there’s a brother having fun with each other”— driven by the kind of free-style audio production that looked beyond the traditional concepts of musical arrangements and formality. “ “M’Lady” sounds like a party going on. “Life” is a carnival that begins with a barker, then two, laughing at each other, big horns, a gigantic consciousness raising high—“Life – tell it like it is— you don’t have to die before you live!!”

Y4CDSS006The youthful exuberance is gone, the social awareness is increasing, the production is slicker by 1969’s “Stand” — “you’ve been sitting much too long—there’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong!” – “there’s a midget standing tall, and a giant beside him about to fall!” It feels a bit dated, a golden oldie, a solid memory but the controlled chaos and the crazy audio production is a thing of the past. From the same album (called Stand), there’s “Sing a Simple Song” and “Everyday People”— probably the group’s high water mark— and both of those songs bind the no-holds-barred past with the glossier, socially consciousness future. The same album’s “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” (same lyric, “Don’t call me whitey, nigger”) is a sincere push toward revolution.

And the hits just kept on coming: “You Can Make It If You Try”— the band’s optimism was always a joy— and “Hot Fun in the Summertime” are wonderful, timeless in their way. And now we’re having fun: “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and the anthem, “Everybody Is a Star.” That’s all pre-1970. A lot happened in just three years.

With the 1971 album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On, The Family Stone reminds us of its roots with “Family Affair” — very AM-radio friendly, positive, bringing the community together in the best way: “One child grows up to be somebody who just loves to learn” “Newlywed a year ago, but you’re still checkin’ each other out” “Nobody wants to be left out” “You can’t leave ‘cause your heart is there” — a warm, cozy number that feels dated, but, it’s sincere. That song reached #1 on the Billboard Pop and R&B charts. There’s a similar song called “(You Caught Me) Smilin’” that’s more ambitious, kinda jazzy and bluesy, and although it charted, too, it’s not a song most people remember. In fact, I don’t remember any of the songs that followed on the charts from 1971 through 1975.

Those later songs are very good—some are vaguely familiar—but they lack the early energy. Instead, there’s a laid back funk, very appealing combinations of electric guitar and horns, a funky stoner groove that’s easy to enjoy time and again, decades after it was produced. It feels original, not at all derivative because the band always led, rarely followed. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the later material, and how nicely it has stood multiple plays while tooling down highways that did not exist when this music was made.

So what happened to Sly and the Family Stone? Trouble became evident as early as 1969 when a combination of influence from Black militants and the drug culture destroyed key creative relationships. By 1970, Epic Records gave up on the possibility of a promised (contracted) new album and released an early Greatest Hits album to keep the market alive. By 1975, the group’s fans had abandoned the possibility of Sly and his band actually showing up for concerts—a big show at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall left most tickets unsold. The downhill slide continued—the sad story is well-told in a Wikipedia article.

Certainly, music historians have written about the huge influence of Sly on several generations of artists, how rap and hip hop trace back to Sly and the Family Stone. That’s all fascinating, but the real story here is the freshness and magnetism of music produced fully a half century ago.

Can’t help but wonder. If it was 1967 today, and I was blogging, would I be writing about the amazing musicians of 1917? I’m guessing no. Sly was something special.

 

 

Stick It in Your Ear

This is guest review by Stephen Blumenthal.

After breaking my third pair of wired earbuds in the one year, I began to look into alternatives. I have a bit of a reputation for pushing the durability of my gear over time. My dad puts it as “you really use your stuff, don’t you?” I can’t say he’s wrong. Any technology that I invest in, I use often and thoroughly. After some light research, it became clear that it was time to bring myself into the 21st century: wireless Bluetooth headphones. Here’s what I wanted from a new pair of wireless headphones…

1. Stable fit in my ear.
2. Good audio quality. I am a composer and audio engineer, I usually manage my expectations of earbuds because they are consumer products, not professional gear. These aren’t headphones that I’m using for input monitoring in the studio; they are earbuds that I wear while talking on the phone or listening to music while running.
3. A reliable microphone for lengthy phone conversations with my family and friends. Same managed expectations as my previous point; this isn’t for a professional quality recording, this is so people can hear me clearly.
4. Since we’re dealing with Bluetooth here, expenditure of energy of both my phone and the wireless earbuds is something to consider. Also, a reliable connection to whatever device it is interacting with.
5. Bonus points for a streamlined, modest looking design.
JabraEnter the Jabra Pulse.
It came in the mail this weekend. I was so excited! I was watching for the mailman from my apartment window. It finally arrived in some beautiful, well-designed packaging. A box with a smooth texture, and a panel that folds out and is held in its place by a well-concealed magnet. I get the box opened up and lay all of the gear out on my coffee table. In addition to the earbuds themselves, there’s a short micro-USB cable for charging, a brief instruction manual, a couple pairs of soft rubber “wings,” which come in different sizes and interesting shapes, for fitting into the ridges of your ear and small soft rubber cups (I believe the call them ‘EarGels’) of varying sizes to ensure a secure fit in your ear. Getting the right fit was a little confusing at first, but once I wrapped my head around how they worked, I had no problems.They all come in a nifty little carrying case, it’s obvious that a lot of thought and care went into customer experience and product design.
For a $199 pair of earbuds, my expectations have been met – definitely worth the price.
Not wanting to wait even a second more to bother with charging them, I immediately fired  up the Bluetooth on my iPhone and paired the devices. I skimmed the Jabra instruction manual. Hold down the center button on the control piece on the earbuds with your phone’s Bluetooth turned on, you’re greeted by a pleasant, modern sound to confirm the ‘buds are awake, and then a nice, female voice confirms your connectivity. It feels like something out of the future, something like Cortana from Microsoft’s Halo video game series.
First things first, let’s play some tunes. I start Spotify, and my expectations of audio quality are exceeded. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I’m smiling ear to ear with how great this sounds. I start with playing some Daft Punk, a favorite, and something that I expect to sound good on a product like this. These earbuds seem to be marketed towards people with an active lifestyle, so I expect music that falls into genres like EDM, Rock, R&B etc. to sound great on these. Something to run to, something to lift to, etc.
But what about something quiet and orchestral?
I pop on Nuages from Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes. The beginning of this piece is quiet, very quiet. Granted, I’m in my room in my apartment, a very quiet space. My first observation is that I do not have to crank the volume to hear the soft beginning. The quality is impressive, I can hear the instruments and subtle orchestration clearly. Expectations are exceeded here. For a small set of in-ear speakers, I’m hearing a lot more detail than I expected. I’ve studied this work thoroughly, so I have a pretty clear idea of how it’s supposed to sound. There weren’t a lot of missing frequencies here, and that impressed me. While I’m happy to know that the quality is high here, orchestral music is still better on a big pair of loudspeakers, or better, in a live venue.
The range of connectivity isn’t half bad, either. I left my phone in my bedroom and walked to the other side of my two bedroom apartment to the kitchen. The signal didn’t start to break up until I got to my front door, the furthest point from my room.
Phone call test was next, I called my brother. He’s at noisy restaurant waiting in line to order a bagel. He picks up, I can hear him clearly, he can hear me clearly. Very different from my past experiences. I’ve had long conversations using these little ‘buds already, and I’ve had little to no issue with them.
This morning, I took them out for a run. This time, I used Jabra’s complimentary fitness tracking app. It has some pre-loaded workouts, you can make your own workout routine within their app, or you can have it just track your speed, heart rate and distance. I’ve only used this app once so far, but the whole experience is pretty seamless.
I’m very happy with my Jabra Pulse, my expectations were exceeded. Definitely worth the investment.

Karin, Hard to Find

karin_forsideIn 1969, most people, even those who were following the progression from jazz to fusion, hadn’t yet heard the work of a British guitar player named John McLaughlin. That was the year that he recorded his first album, “Extrapolation.” At the time, it was wildly experimental, but as I listen to it in the background while writing this article, it’s really delightful, gentle, meditative, not at all explosive. McLaughlin is a gifted guitar player and composer. He shares the stage with an another young British musician, a man who plays the somewhat unusual combination of soprano and baritone sax. His name is John Surman. At the time, Surman was already recording on his own for the Deram label (later famous for Moody Blues LPs). As a guy who tended to read album liner notes, I probably made a mental note about how much I enjoyed Surman’s work, but that’s didn’t amount to much.

Jumping far forward in time, all the way to 1995, I was writing a book for Billboard about the story of jazz, told through about 500 of the best jazz CDs. I worked with every jazz label, and welcomed their suggestions. Some of the most intriguing jazz CDs came from a European label, ECM Records. The music on ECM differed from the work on other labels: it was sophisticated, experimental, as much a soundscape work of art as a record album. One of the most intriguing of the ECM recordings was made by the Nordic Quartet, led by John Surman. I’m listening to the first track, and I can easily understand why it caught and captured my attention. Surman and his electric guitar partner Terje Rypdal had so thoroughly updated the explorations of the “Extrapolation” era. Weaving through the first track, UnknownTraces, there is a deep female voice whose sound more closely resembles an instrument than an upfront vocalist—and she’s singing phrases that feel more like poetry than lyrics. She was not credited as a singer, but instead, as “voice.” Her name is Karin Krog.

By this time, I was very well organized, and my note about finding more Karin Krog music stayed with me for (yikes) nearly twenty years. I liked what I heard, but in time, I forgot where I heard her voice. I’d visit my favorite deep inventory record stores, and nobody had ever heard of her.

Over time, I continued to collect John Surman CDs, and loved most of them. (Note to myself: I need to update my Surman collection because all of the CDs I just fetched from the shelf pre-date 2003), but there was no mention of Karin Krog on any of them.

Krog_4_lresEarlier this year, late at night, I decided to do a Google Search on Karin Krog. Bingo! She released her first single in 1963! (Clearly, I have missed a very good story that spans lots of decades.) We connected, and she was kind enough to send a few CDs. While the package was in transit from Europe, I found an LP called “Some Other Spring” in a used record store, copyright 1970, by Karin Krog and the brilliant Dexter Gordon (with the equally formidable Kenny Drew on keyboards, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass—they were working together in a Copenhagen jazz club). I was impressed by the good company, but I was a initially disappointed because the magical soundscape I had so enjoyed on Nordic Quartet was absent here; then, I listened more carefully, and with more of an open mind, and began to understand her versatility (it was her plaintive version of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” that won me over). As the CDs were making their way to me, I explored the depth and breadth of a discography that includes dozens of albums.

The CDs arrived. I decided to listen in chronological order, so I started with what I now understand to be a work from the mid-1970s (fitting nicely into my story), an album called “Cloud Nine Blue.” Gosh, it’s rich! (The liner notes from the modern re-release mention something about remixing—completely unnecessary!). So here’s the incredible depth of John’s bass clarinet intermingled with lines of synthesizer and the siren qualities of Karin’s voice, accents and filagree from John’s soprano sax, a kind of avant-garde meets religious exaltation on “Eyeless in Movement,” no lyrics, just sonic expression, then a half-spoken, half-sung song from Karin. Gee, this is interesting music, the kind of work that makes a top-quality sound system worth the investment so each of the artists’ ideas are allowed to fully show themselves (listening on a lesser system is fine, but you’re missing half the show).

Karin-Krog-Oslo-CallingJumping to “Oslo Calling,” it’s now 2008. The execution is cleaner, more modern (heck, it’s more than thirty years later!), somewhat more traditional in its jazz arrangements. Karin’s voice has gained luster in the lower ranges, and boundless confidence. When a song is a soundscape, it’s slicker, less experimental, and I miss the freer thinking of the earlier work (but musicians must evolve, and the range of both John and Karin has been remarkable, over so many years). I especially enjoyed “Three Little Words,” a Kalmar-Ruby tune that’s been forgotten by too many performers—her interpretation is sassier than the others I’ve heard.

mr20_smallKarin_5_tbnOf the three CDs, the most interesting is also the most experimental, a cycle of songs originally composed for a 2010 jazz festival. It’s called “Songs About This and That,” and I like it because it recalls my earlier interest in their exuberant experimental side, but places it in a more artful, more carefully arranged setting. There is a sense of open time and space to explore, to allow for long lines, an ease with the maturation of Karin’s voice. On this CD, I think my favorite track may be “Cherry Tree Song” because the poetic lyrics wind so gracefully around John’s baritone sax and bass clarinet, a warm combination of electric guitar, vibraphone, and John’s bass recorder. In fact, I jotted down some other favorite tracks, and found the list was too long to manage, but I will mention the vibe solo that begins “Moonlight Song” and Karin’s waking-up voice, looking backward on memory. Wrapping up an article I’ve so enjoyed writing, I happened to notice that Karin’s credit on this CD is what it was so many years before, not “vocals” but simply, “voice.”

A lifetime of work. So much fun to discover, to listen attentively because there is so much to hear.Thanks, John, thanks, Karin. I want to hear more.

 

 

Post-CES 2014

Sony-wideIn the old days, I used to go twice a year: once to Las Vegas in the winter and once to Chicago just before summer began. There were so much to see!

This year, CES came and went, and although I wanted to be there just for the fun of it, I was surprised because I didn’t notice the usual flood of stories and cool products that I wish I had seen for myself. I suppose there are a few reasons why: many of the products of the past were driven by their own unique hardware needs, so the physical design and functionality of so many products were unique. Now, many of these innovative ideas use the same portable computer—the smart phone or the tablet—so the form factor and the functionality is less original. Often the innovative idea is iterated as software or accessory, not a whole new thing. (On the far side of this timeline, my basement is no longer quite so full of old stuff that seemed like a great idea at the time, and so, my garage sales are less frequent and less thrilling for the neighbors).

In past articles, I’ve written about the new 4K HDTVs, and now, we’re starting to see digital cameras (including a $2,000 camcorder from Sony) that can create content for the new format. New screens are curvy, which is cool, but so far, not so useful. Still, this is among the things to come that we will own within a few years—whether as part of a phone or a living room TV set.

This was supposed to be the year of the wearable computer, and that’s going kinda slowly. Pebble updated its cool smart watch, which is now smaller, heavier (but still okay), and comes with twice the memory (4MB up to 8MB). For details about this Bluetooth device, and a taste of other wearable devices from the same company, be sure to read a very helpful article on The Verge. Their article about Razer’s Nabu wristband is also interesting, perhaps more as a trend report than a piece about something you’ll be buying this summer; ditto for the backgrounder about Nuance, which is bringing Siri-like technology to wristbands another small devices.

Sony A5000Happily, Sony is beginning to regain some of its juice. The image that tops this article is a fun piece about Sony’s CES presentation using 4K technology and a fair amount of hands-on creativity. The company will introduce a new short-throw HDTV projector this summer that will allow, for example, useful projection onto tabletops (though what I really want is the touch-screen desktop surface used on Hawaii Five-O). Sony’s still cameras (which shoot video, of course) are becoming more and more impressive—and smaller. New to the line is the A5000, but if you haven’t checked out the RX-100, I encourage you to do. It’s my favorite camera (right now, anyway).

Lots of heat re: 3D printing, which is increasingly ready for prime time. Once again, The Verge does a superior job in explaining what this technology is all about, what happened at CES, and why this may become important to you in 2014. For example:

Unsurprisingly, everyone at the CES 3D printer zone thinks that consumer-level 3D printing is on the cusp of something big. “It’s just kind of a whole ecosystem that has to be built up, and it’s kind of slowly growing out,” says Abdullah. “I don’t think we’ve hit that tipping point obviously, but I think that we will get there soon.” Chang describes 2014 as “like the year when the Apple II came out.”

Yes, TV sets will become that much larger, and digital cameras will become that much smaller. More of us will be wearing digital wristbands of some sort, no doubt communicating with one another or with some super server as we track what we eat or where we go or how thoroughly we exercise. Somehow, with each passing miracle, these seem to be less newsworthy. And yet, it’s fun to see what the latest Jawbone portable Bluetooth loudspeaker can do, or how successfully Beats is invading popular culture (now with its own music service). So we are we not all completely crazy about the potential of 3D printing or wall-sized video projections? Because we’ve got a 5MP phone in one pocket and a tablet that’s much smarter than most of NASA’s old school gear in the hand that used to tote around a MacBook Pro but doesn’t anymore because that’s just too heavy or too much of a pain to connect using the smart phone’s portable internet hub. We’ve become so sophisticated, everything exciting seems commonplace, or predictable.

Me, I think I preferred the naiveté and twice-annual festival of wonder.

All I Want for Christmas (or immediately thereafter)

Heck, the stores are too busy, and there’s no law that requires all of the good stuff to show up on December 25. Here’s a rundown of fun stuff on the holiday list. And yes, I’m allowing myself just about anything I want, regardless of whether (a) I need it, and (b) something else on the list is, pretty much, the same thing. On Prancer, on Blitzen… (and be sure to scroll down to the Niagara Falls video—it’s amazing!)

Nikon’s new $3,000 Df DSLR, recently announced, available in black or silver. It’s expensive—and it doesn’t include a full-frame sensor, and it’s not 20MP like the best new cameras, but just 16MP instead. Still, it looks really cool, very much like a 1980s era Nikon SLR. There’s all of the expected stuff that you’ll find in most DSLRs costing half or two-third as much, but it’s the holiday, so why not?

A $350 Tascam DR-60D 4-channel linear PCM recorder, or, in short, a digital audio recorder that mounts on a tripod just below your DSLR, it and can record up to four microphones simultaneously. It records with 4 AA batteries.

A Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter—not the one for $350 that takes a GoPro camera (though that’s cool, too), but the FPV model that costs over $1,000 (FPV = “first person view”). It can fly for nearly a half hour, and the wireless controller (an app for your iOS or Android device) can be 1000 feet from the remote helicopter in flight (but it must be line-of-sight). The app allows you to start and stop video recording from afar. With all sorts of cool stabilization features. This is easily the coolest gift on the list. The more I learn about it, the cooler it seems. Take, for example, this little film made ABOVE Niagara Falls…

Sony’s $800 DEV-3 Digital Recoding Binoculars. I’ve often wondered why most or, at least, many binocs don’t include a video sensor and some storage. Here’s the start of a whole new thing…you can record in HD, or shoot 7MP images, record on SD cards, and enjoy 10x magnification. Is it a camcorder with a 10x zoom? No, better than that. Is it kind-of-like a digital still camera with a pair of 10x lenses? Well, that’s probably closer to it, but the long-term viewing experience through a pair of binocular lenses is far superior to a camera experience. It’s a very good pair of binoculars, and also, a high-quality camera.

For just $200, Røde’s iXY stereo microphones snaps into a iOS device for much-improved sound recording. It’s a much better way to record music, meetings, etc.: a pair of crossed half-inch cardiod condense captures and onboard  analog-to-digital conversation in a small package. And, of course, it’s all controlled by an app. You can record up to 24 bit / 96 kHz with the device (warning: a paid app upgrade here for better recording—an odd way to charge customers for quality.)

In the “I already have one, but maybe you don’t” department: you can now buy Zoom’s H4n portable digital recorder for about $170, and that’s about $100 less than before. It’s a terrific little recorder, well-suited to all sort of professional needs. In fact, I wrote a whole article about it a year or two ago.

Finally, I think I’d like to experiment with a Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera, and the starting place might be the $1000 Pocket Cinema camera. The key here is 13 stops of dynamic range, and my ability to use existing micro four thirds lenses (and legacy lenses via adapter). The result of the extended dynamic range (and other features): that irresistible film look. It’s a pocketable camera that can be used to shoot an independent film. Then again, I think I might prefer the $2,000 model. Or, perhaps, because it’s the holiday time (the best time of the year), maybe one of each. Here’s the start of a three-part review worth watching. at least for those who want every possible detail.

Long Overdue

bobbywatson2colorBobby Watson is a musician’s musician, well-known in some circles, but not a famous jazz saxophone, at least not these days. Those who were paying attention in the mid-1980s, or who have done their research on the best jazz albums of that era, tend to love Appointment in Milano, and Year of the Rabbit; recorded and released nearly twenty years later, Horizon Reassembled is also terrific. Browse Watson’s All Music listing, and you’ll find a half-dozen superior albums by one of jazz’s best saxophone players. Watson’s Check Cashing Day surprised me by showing up in the mail last week. Made me happy. Made me think, too. You can listen to some samples here. Let me tell you more about it.

Recorded to remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago, Watson’s creative partner on this project is a fellow artist from Kansas City, Glenn North. He’s a spoken word performer, and poet who does his best to speak the truth (that second link provides a good example of his work—listen with your ears, and don’t worry about the so-so video quality). Mr. North is also the education manager at the Kansas City Jazz Museum, a kin with Watson who has doubled on the academic side for decades. North’s work is accessible with whiffs of hip-hop language and cadence, straight talk that carries the right messages:

Black is a flock of one hundred crows flying across the moon.

Black is hot water, cornbread and black-eyed peas served with a wooden spoon.

Black is the floor of the Atlantic Ocean covered with fifty million ancestral bones.

Black is the thundercloud over The Congo as the panther starts to moan.

Black is what was before before, when there was no time or space.

Black is the mistreated, the misunderstood, the magnificently beautiful race.

Black is a thousand midnights buried beneath the cypress swamp.

Black is four nappy-headed boys cruising in a beat-up Mitsubishi Galant.

Black is a thousand hornets ready to attack.

And even though Black ain’t went nowhere, tonight, Black is back.

Good poem, but so much better with the beautiful soundtrack provided by the sweet sound of Bobby Watson’s saxophone and the bowed bass so handsomely played by Curtis Lundy. This is what concept albums ought to be, maybe used to be, and I now understand that I miss them. Music with a purpose, a point of view, something to say, something well-said. Watson’s quartet provides some straight-ahead jazz tracks, perhaps the best of them is “A Blues of Hope,” but there are plenty more.

Check Cashing DayThe most ambitious track is Secrets of the Sun (Son) featuring wonderful vocal work by formidable performer, vocal arranger and composer Pamela Baskin-Watson (his wife), Glenn North’s spoken word at its confident best, and a splendid arrangement that allows the quartet to shine.

The more I listen, the more I appreciate what this ensemble has done. Sure, it’s a wonderful jazz album, but Watson does that just about every time. He’s a pro, he’s been doing this forever, and he’s gifted. But there’s a lot more heart and soul here, a coherent focus, a grown-up reflection on what has happened, and has not happened, and what has decidedly not happened, since Martin gave the speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. More from Glenn North, again presented with Watson’s spot-0n soundtrack.

I’m tired of welfare handouts and being played the fool.

I’m also tired of waiting for my forty acres and a mule.

Tired of being mis-educated in this country’s so-called schools.

Ain’t none of them teachers talking about my forty acres and a mule.

I bet you’d sing a different tune if it was me that owed something to you.

Save all the double-talk, and give me my forty acres and a mule.

You keep smiling in my face, but I know your heart is cruel.

Why else wouldn’t you give me my forty acres and a mule?

And why am I the one always getting arrested when you’re the one breaking all the rules?

You know my next question.

Where the hell is my forty acres and a mule?

I’ve been oppressed for over four hundred years, been the object of ridicule.

The least you could do is break me off my forty acres and a mule.

Compared to what you’ve done to me, what I’m requesting is miniscule.

You should be glad that what I’m asking for is forty acres and a mule.

The bill is up to four trillion dollars now and the man is way past due.

What do I have to do to get my forty acres and a mule?

The poet and spoken word artist Glenn North.

The poet and spoken word artist Glenn North.

After writing several articles about intellectual property and fairness, I hope this brief excursion into Glenn North’s poetry is okay with him (if it’s not, I hope he will contact me so I can remove it or otherwise change the presentation). I wanted you to get a sense of what this people have done, and because I think it matters, and because I think it ought to set the stage for more concept albums about important ideas, I provided more than I might otherwise have done.

Hey, this is good work, and it deserves recognition. If you’re trying to track down something interesting and different to buy for friends or family, this is a good choice to add to the list. Normally, I hate it when a website starts playing music when I arrive. In the case of www.bobbywatson.com, I had the opposite reaction. Turn it up and enjoy.

AM, FM, UHF and the Future

Two weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article entitled “A Quest to Save AM Before It’s Lost in the Static.” The average listener to NPR is 56 years old, and new ones aren’t coming on board so quickly because of music services like Pandora. The big question that broadcast television executives are asking is whether there is a future for local television broadcast stations. In fact, the FCC is asking the same question, anxious to buy back a bunch of local television spectrum and sell it to the wireless operators because they say they represent the future. A century ago, we were trying to imagine a world where broadcast radio and television stations might someday exist. Now, we’re wondering whether we need them at all.

I really love this picture of a 1965 AM radio. It comes from a Ford Mustang. To see more, click on the radio.

I really love this picture of a 1965 AM radio. It comes from a Ford Mustang. To see more, click on the radio.

I suspect AM and FM radio are easier to defend because they provide news, sports, weather, emergency information, and entertainment for people on the road. Half of  radio listening happens either in a car or a truck (the rest happens at home, and to a  lesser extent, in workplaces). Once an also-ran, FM  is now the most popular part of the radio band. Music sounds much better on FM than AM radio, so AM is used, mostly, for talk, news, and religion (you knew that). Following the audience, many sports teams have moved to FM, leaving the AM landscape that much more barren. The New York Times article describes an effort to upgrade AM radio, an improvement requiring the replacement of every car and home radio. That seems as unlikely as the replacement of analog television seemed just a few years ago. But we did it.

The digital television transition moved some local broadcasters to other channels (“masked” with their old TV channel IDs so you never noticed), improved some signals for some households (worsened some signals for other households), and greatly increased the available television channels that could be transmitted by a single television station. Most network affiliates have made little meaningful use of  additional bandwidth, but MeTV, retroTV, and Antenna TV are among the entrepreneurial newcomers that make use of the additional bandwidth.  A handful of new non-commercial public networks have emerged, including several importing programs or full channels from other countries including Japan and France.

Jeannie_Bewitched_Website-960x445Where does  this lead? And how do we even begin to think about the future when so much television viewing is now on-demand and so much audio listening is via Pandora, podcasts, Sirius XM, and audible?

Let’s start with the audio side. Traditional radio listening is probably entering its final innings. The disruptive technology is mobile internet. It’s no longer a techno-stretch to include an internet device in an automobile or truck. Hundreds of channels are replaced by thousands. On-demand replaces scheduled programs.  ANy smart phone doubles as an audio file server, easily replenished via the cloud, and, with increasing reliability, the cloud itself becomes the server as the driver enjoys a live stream without considering its source. Program your vehicle with voice-activated instructions, and the car will know  you prefer Car Talk on Tuesday mornings during your commute. Brands matter, podcasts matter, but 24/7 feeds of country music and local news breaks don’t, or won’t. Press a button to see and hear local traffic conditions with appropriate automated warnings, and suggested re-routings. Sirius XM is trying to stay ahead of the curve by selling its own internet channel packages, and starting its own on-demand services. Good idea, but a half dozen companies will offer, more or less, similar subscription services, and, of course, everybody is competing with free (free has been the standard for AM and FM radio, and old habits are hard to change). Add audiobooks and podcasts to the mix, and the AM/FM prognosis becomes even more gloomy.

What about TV?With few exceptions, people watch programs, not networks. New matters less than buzz. If you haven’t seen it yet, last season’s Boardwalk Empire trumps  this season’s Girls. There is so much product,  so much fragmentation of viewing time, everyone plays catch-up almost all of the time. Catch-up has the potential to transform large numbers of viewers into video library consumers , not television viewers who know or care what’s on NBC on Wednesday nights at 9PM. In fact, if there was no broadcast television, viewers would quickly find alternatives on cable, on demand, and various internet services. Which is to say, 20th century television is probably enjoying its last laps. We just don’t need what we had before–there are better alternatives.

With broadcast radio and broadcast television, we established and continue to enjoy a public trust. As members of the public, we provide broadcast spectrum, at no charge, to the likes of CBS and its local affiliates, and they provide a mix of news, entertainment, and other useful or interesting stuff at no charge. The whole thing is monitored by an FCC that is not perfect, but generally watches out for abuses, and the public’s interests. That’s all good, and that’s in the process of going away.

In its place, there is no public trust, no assurance of an appropriate mix of news, entertainment and other useful or interesting stuff, and almost none of it will be provided at no charge. We are making a VERY POOR choice. We have missed a step. We are handing our mass communications to companies whose principal business is collecting monthly fees for services, not attending to the needs of the communities they serve, not attending to any national agenda or public interest. We have already seen bad behavior from operators who wish to constrain what is and is not made available through their commercially-controlled networks. We will see more control–all quite reasonable because these companies are not required, nor encouraged, to do good. They are required (by shareholders) and encouraged (by advertisers and subscribers) to keep the public interested, to capture our imagination and attention, but not for anything resembling good reason.

In short, we are missing a step. You and me, we have some interests to protect here. We should be unwilling to transfer control of all media to companies with no meaningful public interest requirement.

Let’s think about that. And let’s continue the conversation in the  near future.

Unitasking

With an iPhone in one pocket and an iPad in another, my shoulder bag allows me to work pretty much anywhere. I work in the car (Bluetooth headphone when I’m driving; iPad when my wife drives). I grab a free half-hour and knock items off my OmniFocus master task management system, which syncs, completely and reliably, the lists on my iPhone, iPad, and iMac. I read a lot of books and articles. I suppose my life runs toward busier-than-average. After a vacation week without email, and the use of iPad only to homebrew detours around nasty interstate backups, I’ve given some thought to the clear benefit of unitasking.

My auto-correct just underlined the word “unitasking” because the computer did not recognize it. I checked with Merriam Webster; my search for “unitasking” returned “the word you’ve entered is not in the dictionary.” When I checked “multitasking,” the first sense read: “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer” and the second read, “the performance of multiple tasks at one time.”

Google Search: "multitask" returned these and many other images.

Google Search: “multitask” returned these and many other images.

Of course, computers and humans multitask all the time. Computers run multiple operations at high speeds, some simultaneously, some sequentially. As I write, I run my fingers along the keys and press buttons at surprisingly high speeds; I read what I am writing on the screen; and I think ahead to the next few words, and further out, to the next setup for the next idea; I am aware of grammar, clarity, flow and word choices; and I make corrections and adjustments along the way. As I write, I am also aware of the total word count, keeping my statements brief because I am writing for the internet (so far so good–my current word count is 279).

To ease the writing process, I listen to music. For six dollars, I recently purchased a 6-LP box of Bach Cantatas on the excellent Archiv label, and I am becoming familiar with them by playing the music in the background as I write. I do not find this distracting, but the moment the telephone rings when I’m in mid-thought, I become instantly grouchy.

I wonder why.

When I write, I focus on the writing, but writing is not a continuous process as, for example, hiking a mountain might be. I write for a few seconds, perhaps cast a phrase, then pause, listen to the soprano or the horns for a moment, then write a few sentences in burst of energy, then pause again to collect thoughts. I am thinking sequentially, not requiring my brain or body to do several things at one time. So far, this morning, the scheme seems to be working (441 words so far).

Do I multitask?

You betcha, but not when I write because writing requires so much of my focused attention.

Just before vacation, I attended a meeting with two dozen other people, all seated for discussion around a large rectangular hotel conference room in a Chicago airport hotel. Most of the participants were CEOs or people with similar responsibilities. From time to time, half of the people in the room were sufficiently engaged in the discussion to lift their eyes from their iPads (few used computers; most used iPads). Most of the time, just a few people were deeply engaged. Part of the problem: the meeting was similar to the meeting held last summer in the same location discussing the same topics. If there’s low engagement, then the active brain fills-in with activities promising higher degrees of engagement, and the iPad provides an irresistible alternative to real life. Of course, if more of the people looked up from their iPads and engaged in the conversation not-quite-happening in the room where they are seated, it might well be worthy of more of everyone’s attention. This raises the stakes for those who plan such meetings–if the meeting does not offer sufficient nourishment, minds drift.

Once again, that makes me wonder about the value of multitasking. Each of spent a good $1,000 to meet in Chicago, to discuss matters of importance in the company of one another. During the few times when the whole group was fully engaged, the engagement was not the result of multitasking. Instead, there was a single topic presented, and a single, well-managed discussion. In short, we engaged in a unitasking activity.

One final though before we all drift back into our bloated to-do lists. On vacation, I like to read a good story, well-crafted fiction by an author who really knows how to write. This time, I tried Jeffrey Lent’s A Peculiar Grace. Reading in the car, in the hotel room late into the night, whenever a good half hour’s free time presented itself, I found myself thinking about the characters, the story, the setting, the overall feeling of the book, even when I was not reading it. This was accomplished, of course, by the unitasking that a good book demands and deserves.

So why isn’t unitasking in the dictionary? And what do we need to do in order to bring this word into common use, and this way of thinking into common practice?

A Portable Speaker as Good as Your iPad

Tablets are spectacular inventions, but, as a rule, their internal loudspeakers do a poor job reproducing sound. With tiny loudspeaker drivers, often pointing in any direction except toward your ears, assisted by an amplifier never intended to seriously reproduce music, even the most appealing iPad is so uninterested in music, it contains only a single monaural loudspeaker.

Most people either enjoy the experience as-is, and don’t worry much about fidelity. Or, they use a pair of stereo headphones and enjoy the kind of audio that seems to exist inside the tablet (or phone), but won’t come out without some sort of accessory.

For months, I’ve been seeking a portable speaker for use with a tablet, or a phone, that provides the seemingly impossible combination of small size, convenient weight, sufficient amplification for listening at desk or in a bedroom, and, most important of all, clarity across the dynamic range (that is: nice clear highs, credible mid-tones and, perhaps most difficult in a tiny setup, bass is crisp and well-defined).

FoxL, basic model, front view, now apparently on sale for about $120.

FoxL, basic model, front view, now apparently on sale for about $120.

At a trade show, I found what I was looking for. It comes from a small company called soundmatters and it goes by the name of FoxL. In fact, there are several models.

The core of these devices is a hybrid loudspeaker design that soundmatters calls a “Twoofer,” which combines “tweeter” and ‘woofer.” This design allows a dynamic range that begins as low as 80Hz, or roughly what you would hear from a good tabletop stereo system, and also allows highs in the 20KHz range, which seems fairly commonplace. These speakers fit into a ruggedly constructed (mostly) metal box that is, truly, pocketable. The dimensions: 5.6 inches wide, 2.2 inches high, and 1.4 inches deep. It’s about the size of an eyeglass case. It weighs 9.5 ounces. (By comparison, the popular JAMBOX weighs 12 ounces, and, overall, it’s about 20 percent larger). Does the size matter? For a portable device, sure it does… the smaller (and lighter) the device, the more likely I will take it along in my shoulder bag.

But only if it sounds (very) good.

Right now, I’m listening to a recording by The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis. The album is called Live in Swing City, and the tune is a complicated arrangement called “Chinoiserie” and it contains some very aggressive performances, lots of solos, deep notes, a barking saxophone, a sweet backup horn section, and a live audience in the background. Not an easy combination for a so-so audio system. The results are excellent–but I am careful to keep the audio level no higher than about 80% on both the iPad and the FoxL (which contains its own amplifier and volume control). The system can play louder, but bits of distortion and harshness make the listening just a bit unpleasant.

For something completely different, I switched to Peter, Paul & Mary, a trio that was always well-recorded, and whose individual voices and harmonies are both distinctive and familiar. The album is See What Tomorrow Brings and the song is “If I Were Free.” Mary is singing lead, and the nuances of her vocal are presented with appropriate warmth, if just the slightest bit lacking in punch. The guitars and the male background vocals sound clear and wonderful. The opening guitar on “Early Morning Rain” and Paul Stookey’s vocal sound ideal, and once again, the vocals are right, too.

The opening drums and other percussion on Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” grabs the listener with just the right power and clarity. The vocals sound fine. The more frenetic “Walcott” has enough bass and the right drum sound to fill a (very) small room.

“Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” by Wilco on their Woody Guthrie tribute album, Mermaid Avenue, also sounds right. The vocal is crisp and clear, and when the background vocals kick in, with the additional instrumentation, everything holds together beautifully.

Dawn Upshaw brings her operatic voice to artful arrangements of Weill, Bernstein and other 20th century heroes on her album, I Wish It So. I’m very familiar with her version of Sondheim’s “There Won’t Be Trumpets” because it was one of a half dozen songs I used to test loudspeakers and sound systems for a feature story in Stereophile, a high-end audio magazine. Once again, Upshaw’s nuance in Upshaw’s voice is about right, but again, there’s a small lack of punch.

Presence turns out to be less of an issue for Karan Casey, who brings her pretty Irish voice to the ballad “She Is Like The Sparrow” on her self-titled album, but the low string accompaniment must be played at about 70% to avoid distortion. When the sound level is monitored, and the FoxyL is placed on its soft rubberized mat (supplied), the presentation is rich and quite wonderful.

Concerned about the occasional presence of distortion, I find some songs with distinctive and abundant bass. The little speakers sounded fine on Bonnie Raitt’s “Love Has No Pride,” and when Charlie Haden plays the bass behind James Cotton’s voice and harmonica on “All Walks of Life” from their Deep in the Blues album, the level of distortion was neither obvious nor troublesome. No problem on the Emerson Quartet’s version of various Beethoven String Quartets, either. In fact, they sounded terrific.

All of my listening was done with an iPad2 connected, by a supplied cable (miniplug to miniplug) to the most basic FoxL model ($149). For fifty dollars more, you can buy a Bluetooth model (I’m not a huge fan of Bluetooth for music listening because the sound, inevitably, cuts in and out). Both will run for 12 hours on a single battery charge (charger included). An additional $30 buys a total of 20 hours of battery life and a pretty silver enclosure. You can also charge via USB. My one complaint: a poor design on the back of the device–an easel stand is made of plastic and can be difficult to open.

Visit the website to learn more about an accessory subwoofer (also quite small) that plugs into any FoxL device.

FoxL with its subwoofer.

FoxL with its subwoofer.

Film with Feeling

Alex Kirke is a director with a keen interest in the cinematic experience, and, as it turns out, an equally keen interest in the measurement of biophysical responses to storytelling. Inevitably, this led Mr. Kirke to the development of software that would read sensors attached to the bodies of audience members. The sensors provide real-time feedback on muscle tension, perspiration, heart rate, and brain wave activity. As the software collects the data, it compiles the results, and, in accordance with the director’s wishes, the film automatically branches from one audio-visual file to another.

By using this technology, a director can amplify or dial-down emotional impact, shorten or lengthen the story, cut to another sequence entirely, and so on. Of course, all of the branching must be worked out before production begins because each sequence must be produced, edited, and integrated into the file management system.

Says one of the actresses:

It will be quite interesting to know, so well, how the audience reacts. The ending they choose reflects their reactions.

Not just the ending, of course. Anywhere in the film, the story can change course. So, too, can the soundtrack. Or any visual or visuals. In theory, there may be a large number of branches (for the professional, this becomes an obsessive, difficult way to tell a story, but it’s interesting to consider the possibilities). And, in theory, the sensors could be connected to the seats or the armrests throughout the theater, but that’s all in the future.

For the present, do watch the video. It’s rough, more of a professorial demonstration that any sort of slick production, and, if time permits, have a look at Mr. Kirke’s blog, too. There, he covers an interesting range of technical innovations related to entertainment and storytelling.

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