Thursday, June 24, 2010

Dr. Dimento Show Off the Air

Since the 1970s Barret Hanson (aka Dr. Dimento) has broadcast the weird and wonderful of the radio world. Beginning with quirky songs like Sheb Wooley's "Purple People Eater" and Barnes & Barnes "Fish Heads," Hanson moved on to frequently spin the music of Spike Jones, Monty Python, and Frank Zappa, ultimately forming what would become a cult radio institution. The funnier the songs he played, the more popular the show got, and listeners even began sending in their own parodies and comical works (a sixteen-year-old, accordion playing Weird Al Yankovic, for one).
But all good things must come to an end, I suppose, because this June, the show was finally taken off of the air. When I heard this, I was gravely disappointed, because I'd never heard it, but I needn't have worried. The Dr. Dimento Show will, like many other things, continue on the Internet. Hanson thinks this is a better fit anyway, because his show never scored too well with the common demographic.
Imagine that.

Swing Low

I had a friend once who I sang with in select choir. I was an alto, but she was a bona fide female baritone -not tenor, but baritone. She hit the low notes in a way I couldn't have hoped for and, as this was at a time when many of the boys in the group were struggling with voice changes, this girl could often hit lower notes than even they could.

So I thought of her when I heard about Roger Menees, a gospel singer who's just made his way into the Guinness Book of World Records for hitting the lowest note ever recorded. In February, at a recording studio in Carbondale, Roger hit an F-sharp at 0.393 hertz (Sorry, Madison, but I think he's got you beat on this one.) To be fair, a note that low isn't very functional. I mean, it's not like any opportunity would arise in a vocal ensemble performance to swing that low. If anything, it's more of a physiological wonder. Roger says himself that "thins is the slowest vibration that you can make with your vocal chord -the slowest vocal pulses with the greatest interval in between them." In fact, the human ear can't even determine that the note is an F-sharp, and Roger says that he's shattered electro-voice speakers by hitting so low of notes before.

I heard the recording of this record-winning low note, and it's true that it sounds more like a low refrigerator vibration than anything, or some sort of machine feedback.

John Cage would be proud.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Playing the Music Space

If the experience of a live musical performance is taken holistically, (the only way it should always be taken, best-case scenario, in my opinion) one must consider the space in which it is being performed. The instruments and voices you're hearing are meant to be a focal point, yes, but there's often so much potential for other sonic phenomena to affect the experience. The acoustics of a concert hall or other music venue are generally considered to be important (by some musicians more than others, I'll admit) because it affects the way the music will be heard. A small wood-paneled room is going to sound drastically different from a carpeted theater, and will also differ from an outdoor performance, one in a school gymnasium, or one taking place inside an airplane hanger.

Too often, though, it seems that the acoustics or sonic contributions of the space are ignored entirely, or they are manipulated such that they are rendered silent. With all this potential for variation out there, it strikes me as disappointing that artists don't play with this variable more. Being able to not only play your instruments but also to play the performance space seems an exciting creative concept to consider. Perhaps this is why garage bands are so infamously horrible. The musicians, confined to practice in a garage, sound great within the confines of their aluminum box, but when heard outside of the car port, the quality is altered (okay, perhaps I'm a bit too gracious here, but I'm trying).

But just think of the possibilities! Perhaps musicians could work the vibrations of the aluminum siding of an airplane hanger to their benefit, not to mention the marvelous echos that are sure to ensue. Or how about staging an outdoor performance near a waterfall or a forest where artists can play with the birdsong or frog chirps. And I'm reminded of a certain group notorious for playing bagpipes in cavernous wells and such... Then there's the ever-Cagean component of indeterminacy that can be thrown in when you incorporate such less-easily controlled sonic phenomena. Imagine playing improv with a thunderstorm or the train...

Friday, June 4, 2010

Itty Bitty Instrument Makes a Mighty Comeback

There's a new documentary out called The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog by Director Tony Coleman. The film travels all over in search of artists who play the instrument, and finds it in the hands of a rather eclectic bunch. From virtuosos like Israel Kamakawiwo'ole to the likes of Paul McCartney, to elementary schools in Canada and even a man who claims that the uke led him to discover hip hop, this documentary hopes to illustrate how this tiny Hawaiian instrument has built culture and community over the years and how, thanks to it's simplicity and affordability, it's making a comeback in popular culture today.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Robot Orchestra

It's amazing, really, the variety that one can experience in different musical performances. Go to the Cincinnati orchestra and you're watching over fifty people playing instruments. Go see an electronic music artist and you could be watching one guy making music on his laptop computer. Now, if you go to the California Institute for the Arts you will see something somewhere in between- that is a room full of music students at computers and machines making robots play music. Ajay Kapur, a music professor at the school, offers a class in which students learn to build robots and become prat of the Kametic Machine Orchestra. Kupur claims that he's not trying to teach kids to be programmers,, but rather to help them to become better artists in a world increasingly dominated by new technology.

But the performances by the students and their robots are a far cry from the "lone guy at the laptop" performance and these robots are far removed from the player piano. Aluminum boxes, wires, gears, mallets, drums, and skateboard wheels are just some of the components one will see, and these robots aren't just playing what they've been programmed to play. No, in the spirit of John Cage, there's a bit of uncertainty involved. Rather than programmed to simply play music, the students have programmed their robots to improvise. This essentially means that the students are never quite sure how the robots are going to respond. In this respect, Kapur claims that playing with the robot orchestra is a lot like playing with other people. You never quite know what they're going to do next.

And to those who claim that Kapur is teaching his music students to replace themselves with robots? He says that he doesn't think of the robots as replacing human musicians, but rather as instruments that can make sounds that humans can't. For example, one person could play three drums at a time with two sticks, but a robot can have seven arms...