Monday, January 30, 2006

The Future Of Music...And Humanity

Calling yourself a 'futurist' would seem to invite immediate skepticism; it's almost like calling yourself a mesmerist or an astrologer. But inventor and writer Ray Kurzweil actually has the bona fides to pull it off. Kurzweil, who by the age of twenty had developed a computer program that matched high school students to colleges, has been called the "rightful heir to Thomas Edison" by Inc. magazine. PBS chose him as one of sixteen revolutionaries who made America. So while you might be skeptical of the claims made by a self-styled futurist who happens to consume over 250 pills a day (to keep his body chemistry at optimal levels), his words do have weight.
Kurzweil's newest book, The Singularity is Near, makes a startling prediction: in our lifetimes, humans will transcend biology. According to Kurzweil, this event-the Singularity-will take place by around 2050. He envisions a radically changed world, one where there is no distinction between real and virtual reality and human and machine. Those of us who are enlightened enough to accept the Singularity (Kurzweil acknowledges that there will be subsets of the population that will resist technological augmentation and make due with their Human Bodies v. 1.0) will have millions of nanobots--microscopic robots--patrolling our bloodstreams, delivering oxygen and nutrients to cells, fighting infections, and stimulating our nerves. The stomach, heart, and lungs will be obsolete. We'll have the opportunity to upload our personalities onto the Internet or download the personalities of our friends or, for the ultimate in intimacy, our lovers. Just like the characters in the Matrix movies, we'll be able to learn new skills and languages simply by downloading the information into our computer-enhanced brains.
Kurzweil's predictions are based on two basic ideas: firstly, according to Kurzweil's data, technology growth is not a linear process, but an exponential one. Advances in technology don't gradually increase; technological advances start slowly, experience a rapid growth, then level off. Consider the airplane--Leonardo da Vinci made convincing sketches of flying machines as early as the 1400's. The Wright brothers made their first flight 500 years later, in 1903. In another 55 years, Yuri Gagarin was the first person to orbit the earth. Secondly, Kurzweil preaches the ascendancy of all things digital. Limited forms of artificial intelligence are already available and Kurzweil predicts a fully intelligent computer, complete with emotions, by the 2020's. Throughout his book, Kurzweil asserts that digital computation can "emulate analog processes to any degree of accuracy." We at Silent Stereo Records took immediate note of that statement.
Human immortality and the end of life as we know it are fascinating topics, but we wondered what effects the Singularity will have on music. Our mission is to preserve the true sound of music through the use of analog recording devices. Digital recordings, no matter how good, can never actually reproduce an analog sound wave; the digital points can only approach the curve of a sound wave. Thus, digital recordings will always present less than the true sound of the music recording. Or so we thought. I decided to write Ray Kurzweil an email and see what effect the Singularity would have on our own Silent Stereo Records. Here's what transpired:

Dear Mr. Kurzweil,

I recently finished reading your work and I am greatly intrigued by the
scenario you predict. As I am now only 28, I should hopefully be around
for the advent of the singularity. However, there is one area of your work that has a special interest for me--the "analog vs. digital" debate. I am part of a group of musicians who, despite the advance of digital recording techniques, are diehard fans of the "old" ways. In your
book, you state that "we can emulate analog processes to any desired degree
of accuracy with digital computation"(126), but how does this apply to digital recording? I'm no sound engineer, but my understanding was that a digital recording can never perfectly capture an analog sound wave; it can only approach it. Indeed, digital recordings sometimes have a 'flat'
feel to them not present on analog recordings. Does the technology currently exist for a digital recording to perfectly emulate an analog one? Or is this technology in development and will be achieved by the time of the singularity?

You use the anecdote of the digital piano gradually outstripping the analog piano in sales to demonstrate how one technology gradually supercedes another. At the present time, digital recordings are certainly widespread, mostly due to the relative inexpensiveness of the technology and the high degree of control the engineer has over the sound. But most major label
releases, especially in the rock genre, continue to be recorded with analog devices. Is this trend about to end?
If you have thoughts on this matter (and I presume you've considered it
because of your musical background) I'd be interested in hearing them.

Thanks for your time.

Mr. Kurzweil responds:


Digital methods can em
ulate analog methods to any desired degree of accuracy. Various analog effects can be emulated with digital sound processors. The piano presents a special challenge because of the ability to use all the several hundred strings (many of the 88 keys strike
multiple strings) to act as a resonant chamber when the pedal is up. This can
be emulated but requires a digital filter with hundreds of poles and that is
challenging. However, it is doable and there are currently reasonable
digital simulations of the full piano that fool musicians.


Ray Kurzweil

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So there you have it. Apparently, digital processes can fully emulate analog ones. Either way, we at Silent Stereo Records will not be deterred. In fifty years, we may be the sole purveyors of analog recordings, but to our simple, biological brains, that's the only way to go.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

In Memoriam: Wilson Pickett

When guitarist Duane Allman, then a session musician at the legendary Fame studios in Alabama, approached Wilson Pickett about covering the Beatles "Hey Jude," the soul legend's response was "Skyman, that ain't for me. It's too weird." Considering Pickett's reputation at the time, it might have been natural for the legend to have some doubts about covering Lennon and McCartney's triumphant masterpiece. Wilson "Wicked" Pickett, was the dark side of soul, Hell's very own preacher. Whereas Otis Redding's quavering screams implored his listeners to try a little tenderness, Pickett's throaty growls were pure evil. As Pickett himself recalls, "Early one morning I ran out and hollered. My voice echoed down through the swamps and I thought 'Uh-oh. This is it.'"
Like most of the great soul singers of the sixties, Pickett started out on the gospel circuit. As a teenager, Wilson traveled across the South, adding his ferocious vocals to troupes featuring the likes of the David Sisters, the Soul Stirrers, and the Swan Silvertones. Jamming with Sam Cooke, Little Archie, and his idol, the Rev. Julius Cheeks, young Wilson realized that his voice, and especially, the "Scream," was something special. And when Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin successfully (and more importantly, lucratively) made the switch to secular music, Pickett decided to follow suit. Wilson was born in 1941 in Alabama and worked hard picking cotton --two days in school, three days in the fields. Although he moved with his father to Detroit in 1955 to find a better life, he remained in deep poverty. Secular music presented Wilson with an opportunity to use his amazing gift and provide a living for himself and his family.
Wilson's commerical singing career started when he teamed up with the Falcons in Detroit. The Falcons featured Eddie Floyd, a future soul legend in his own right, and with Wilson on vocals scored a hit with "I Found A Love," a gospel-influenced lament that reached #6 on the R&B charts. While still with the Falcons, Pickett started recording solo sides and sent a demo version of "If You Need Me" to Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler loved the song, but decided to give it to Solomon Burke, crushing Pickett's aspirations.
But Wilson Pickett was not going away. "You couldn't fight the power in his voice," said Floyd. "Wilson was so aggressive, he wasn't going to be denied." Wilson's single "It's Too Late," --featuring the kind of spoken word interlude that Joe Tex would later become famous for-- reached #7 on the charts and Wexler took notice, buying out Pickett's contract. After misfiring with the syrupy "Come Home Baby," a duet with Tammi Lynn in which producer Bert Burns stripped all the poison out of Wilson's voice, Wexler sent Pickett down to his hit factory--Memphis's Stax Records.
At that time, almost everything Stax touched turned to gold, and Wilson Pickett was no exception. Reunited with Eddie Floyed, who now worked as the chief songwriter and producer, and introduced to the talents of Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, Pickett crafted some of his best known hits. The three men secreted themselves away in the Lorraine Hotel--the very same hotel where Martin Luther King would be assassinated some three years later--and emerged with "Don't Fight It," "634-5789," and the smash hit "In The Midnight Hour." Pickett was involved in all aspects of the process. "I wasn't just a voice. I had to be in on everything. The songwriting, the arranging, the producing. We did it all. Together. Live. What you hear is what happened when I stepped to the mike. Can't get no soul reading from a sheet of paper."
It would be fun to speculate what other classics might have emerged from the Stax-Pickett collaboration. But unfortunately, Stax owner Jim Stewart decided to ban all outside artists from the studio. So Wexler shipped Wilson off to the next most logical destination--Muscle Shoals, located in Pickett's home state of Alabama. Like Stax, Muscle Shoals was known for teaming up exciting singers with its magnificent house band, mostly composed of hillbilly white musicians. When Wilson arrived at Fame studios in 1966, he reportedly stepped off the plane only to see blacks picking cottons in the fields surrounding the airport. He wanted to turn right around and get on the plane, but fortunately he didn't. The Muscle Shoals sessions led to the grooving "Mustang Sally," and the chart-topping dance dictionary, "Land Of 1000 Dances"--which of course contains the most famous use of the word "na."
But perhaps the biggest surprise from the Muscle Shoals era was Wilson's cover of "Hey Jude." Wilson was criticized in some circles as being a less polished, and some would say, less versatile singer than contemporaries Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin. But with Allman's exhortations, Wilson was able to channel his muscular vocals and make "Hey Jude" his own. His vocal performance was both powerful and tender, in control and explosive, a worthy testament to the man who would begin each morning with a primal scream, a man who's voice, in the words of Stax trumpeter Wayne Jackson, "had that spark of insanity, that ability to transfer a slice of his soul to tape."

sources: Leo Sacks, Peter Guralnick, Richie Unteberger

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Our Podcasts Resume

A common annoyance with the web is the promise of updates that never occur. How many times do you see a cool site that dries up. It's always nice to see "Check back soon for updates" on a site last touched in 2004. So it bothered me that we kind of dropped off with our podcasts. Not that there is this great hunger for them, but we committed to doing them twice a month. But things happen and we had to put the podcasts on hiatus due to the holidays and some work commitments.

But now we're back with some great stuff. First up is a great track from Curtis Eller. Curtis plays banjo, and adds in some great yodeling. If that isn't enough, he cites Buster Keaton as an influence. Next we have a lo fi recording of Jaime Pannone playing in the NYC subway. She's been putting in a lot of effort finishing up Dead Language's new LP which we will release here at SSR. Last we play a track from The Mighty Hannibal. The Mighty Hannibal will be playing a live show backed by The Dansettes during the Reaction Weekender. I'm proud to say that yours truly will be playing in the band backing Hannibal.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Too much freedom?

We all read in the media how the music industry is undergoing big changes with the growth of file sharing and alternative methods for artists to distribute their music. In addition to distribution, artists can now afford to produce their music much easier than in the past. They can buy all-in-one digital recorders or use their PC to record music that can meet professional "quality" standards. Additionally, they can use loops, samples, and virtual instruments to layer on tracks where in the past, you'd have to have multiple accomplished musicians playing the parts. All of this takes up less space, costs less, and arguably sounds "better" than studio methods/equipment available to the musician of 30 years ago. In the past, you couldn't create an album in your bedroom. You'd have to book expensive studio time.

So on one hand, it is great that anyone can now produce and distribute music. Here at SSR we're anti-digital production, but we have to admit that everyone buying up digital equipment has allowed us to snag some tape machines at much lower prices because now they're considered "old and noisy".

But at times I wonder if constraints help create better art. Is it bad to have too much freedom? That isn't a very PC question to ask because everyone says "Yeah man, we want to empower everyone to create". But checking out most indie music, you'll see it's pretty much total crap. There's a great site we found from the WFMU blog:

Monsters of Myspace/

He reviews and describes some of the best crap found on myspace. Hopefully none of SSR's acts will wind up on this blog.

myspace is one of the new ways to distribute your music. After creating a free account, you can get your music out to tons of people. But I wonder if in the past with recording and distribution a lot more difficult, if that difficulty provided a nice Darwinian filter for artists. Mediocre artists wouldn't have the drive and talent to see their projects through. The mediocre artists would never have their music released to the public, and probably wouldn't have any music recorded for posterity. If getting into a recording studio to record 1-2 songs was more expensive and difficult, I'd tend to think that a band/artist would really work hard at perfecting their sound and material. Now, someone can boot up their computer, drag and drop a few loops, slop some keyboards down, post it on their band page, and they've released a song. Trolling through myspace, sounds like most songs went down this way.

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Another Good Early Music Radio Show

WBWC in Ohio runs a weekly program called "1900 Yesterday". On it they play music from the early 20th century, stopping around 1930. All of their shows are archived so you check out any of the past programs. I've added a link to them in our right nav. Here's the url

Also don't forget to check out WFMU's Antique Phonograph show for more acoustic recording.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Live On Air Radio Performance By The Dansettes

The Dansettes, a pop- soul band out of New York City, played a special live on-air set for DJ Terre T of WFMU. Readers of this blog might know WFMU for it's Antique Phonograph Music show, which plays music from the long gone era of acoustic recording. Give the set a listen and if you like what you hear, stop by The Dansettes website and check them out.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Silent Stereo Reviews #3

Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs
Marty Robbins

Although we at Silent Stereo Reviews try to bring you reviews of albums or music you may have missed, we also like to use this space to write about some of our favorite albums, regardless of their popularity, in the hopes of sharing some great music with our readers. And when it comes to popular albums and great music, there may not be a more enduring and influential album than Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.
Appearing in 1959, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs is a concept album, a collection of songs that captured all the faded romance of the American West at a time when America was on the brink of a fairly significant cultural shift. The 1950's were a tumultous time in American history, as the nation faced the specter of Communism abroad and struggled with the fight for racial integration within. In one short year, President Kennedy would take office, the youngest president ever elected, and usher in the beginnings of the Great Society.
It is perhaps fitting that the man behind this album, Marty Robbins, reflected the widely divergent directions America was heading in. Robbins was born in 1925 in Arizona and as a child was regaled by fanciful tales of life on the range from his grandfather, Texas Bob Heckle, who worked as medicine show man. Robbins life before music was a classic American story: he worked first as a rancher, then lived briefly as a penniless hobo, before joining the Navy in 1943. In the service, he learned how to play guitar and when he returned to civilian life in 1947, he gigged regularly in his hometown of Glendale, AZ. After signing with Columbia in 1951, Robbins released a number of successful country and western singles, but never limited himself to that genre. In 1955, Robbins covered Chuck Berry's "Maybellene," and in 1957 released an album of Hawaiian music, a style he grew to love while in the Navy. Robbins also had some success with straight ahead teen pop when he released the single "A White Sport Coat (And A Pink Carnation)."
Thus, when Robbins arrived at Nashville's Bradley Studios in April of 1959, he brought a uniquely American musical perspective to the sessions. The album was also aided by the playing of guitarists Grady Martin and Jack Pruett, bassist Bob Moore, and the subtly effective back up vocals provided by the Glaser Brothers. The track list for the album consisted of three traditional western songs, "Billy The Kid," "Utah Carol," and "Strawberry Roan," which Robbins played when he auditioned for his first singing job at an Arizona radio station in the late 1940s, four original songs penned by Robbins, one song written by the Glaser Brothers, and four other western favorites.
The songs on the album are haunting and evocative, perfectly capturing the sense of an era fading to sepia tones in the nation's collective memory. The songs are stories unto themselves, telling tells of love gone wrong, as in "They're Hanging Me Tonight," and spiritual redemption in "The Master's Tale." With Marty Robbins masterpiece Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs playing and your eyes closed, you cannot help but imagine yourself lying on the cracked and parched Arizona soil under a sky populated by a million stars, living a lifestyle that only survives in the dreams of a nation.