Encores 2 by Nils Frahm, and the Joy of Live Music

It’s difficult to unpack my feelings about Nils Frahm as an artist. I remember, a few years back, hearing rave reviews about one of his albums. I can’t recall which album it was. I listened to it, and it reminded me of the type of “scholarly” music that is being produced at every college music department with an electronic music program in the country. It didn’t strike me as anything special.

Then I listened to The Noise Pop Podcast, or maybe it was Switched on Pop, and one of the hosts was overwhelmed by Frahm’s 2018 album All Melody. So I listened to that, and I felt about the same.

Maybe it was a sign that I was cynical, jaded, or just plain old. Or maybe Frahm and I went through similar music educations. Maybe he was the most successful version of all the dudes making quiet, semi-ambient electronic music at all the schools I attended. Although, glancing through his wikipedia, I don’t see any references to universities. So maybe that isn’t the case either.

But as of last year, my general feeling toward Frahm was a qualified “meh.”

Still, when I saw he was playing at a club that was walking distance from my house, I had to buy tickets. I invited my friend Brian along, and we caught him at The Ritz in San Jose.

It was at that concert that my feelings toward Frahm changed.

The Ritz is a fantastically intimate venue. It’s compact enough to reach out and touch the performer from the front of the audience. It’s small enough to only hold maybe two hundred people standing.

Frahm had an absolutely massive setup. He had several antique organs, numerous synthesizers, and enormous old fashioned amps the size of small cars.

But he had no band and there was no opening act. He came out alone. He performed alone, and the show was about him and his music. It was pure, and almost sacred in its tone at first. But as it went on he got more and more loose.

Frahm has a charming on-stage personality. Between each track he talked about his music and his writing process. He opened up his soul a little bit, and opened up about his music a lot. He got more talkative as the show progressed, until by the end he was talking about chord progressions and audience expectations. For people with a little bit of musical training, which I suspect was most of the audience, it was a magical night where we jointly worshipped at the altar of music.

On January 25th, 2019, Frahm released a new EP titled Encores 2. Does it feel like his show? Would his magical show change the way I perceived his music?

No. The album is more slow, quiet sonic meditations that owe a great debt to Brian Eno. It’s still an enjoyable album to listen to while at work, or on the train, or perhaps while making dinner.

But if you get the chance, you should definitely catch him live.

Remember Nina Simone

I recently read But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman. The premise of the book is to predict the future by looking at how past predictions were wrong, and how they could have been right. As usual Chuck Klosterman takes on sports and culture, with some random asides about The Real World.

The most compelling section was where he tried to predict the future of Rock. He looked back at music of the past, pointing out that most people remember one person from each era of music. So most people know Bach from the baroque, Mozart from the classical, and Beethoven from the romantic era. He made the interesting point that surviving history is about being recognized by people who know nothing about the subject, rather than by people who are specialists. Specialists can name several playwrights from the 1500s, for example, but most of us can only name Shakespeare.

In the domain of rock, he said The Beatles are the logical choice to represent rock music. Still, he pointed out that it’s easier to remember a single individual whose story relates to the art itself. So Bob Dylan or Elvis Presley might emerge rather than The Beatles. Then he pointed to arguments for various rock musicians and why they might turn out to be true.

It was all very interesting, but it just got me thinking about jazz. In one hundred years, who might emerge to represent all of jazz?

Nina Simone at the piano

The obvious choice is Duke Ellington. His career spanned most of jazz, even though he retained his own distinct style throughout. He was influential as both a composer and a band leader.

Another choice might be Louis Armstrong. He invented the jazz solo as we know it today, and he performed a few of the most popular jazz tracks ever recorded.

After them, the waters get more murky. Benny Goodman made jazz popular music. Miles Davis sold more records than even Louis Armstrong. Marian McPartland brought jazz into the home long after most people had given up on it. Heck, maybe Johnny Costa will be remembered for his role as the music director of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.

I think that it will probably be a composer. Prior to the late 19th century, the only recorded history of music was written down on paper. This is why we remember Mozart the composer, rather than the people who performed his music. We still tend to think people who write music are more important than people who perform it, even when we have recordings of great performers. That’s a big reason why it will probably be Duke Ellington who is ultimately remembered.

But this strikes me as wrong. Jazz is the first music that is truly a recorded music throughout its entire history. If humanity is around in one hundred years, then jazz recordings will still exist. So couldn’t it, perhaps, be the greatest performer who survives?

Also the focus of jazz is on the improviser. Jazz is a kind of folk music, where the performer subjugates the composition to his own interpretation. So perhaps the greatest interpreter of jazz will be remembered.

In either case, it has to be Nina Simone. No other performer expressed the full range of human emotions in a single performance. Even Louis Armstrong tended toward jubilation in his performances. He never reached the depths that Nina Simone explored in I Loves You Porgy or Willow Weep for Me.

There are two arguments against Nina Simone. First, that she was closer to a pop singer than a jazz singer. Second, that she isn’t known for her compositions.

Nina Simone wasn’t a pop singer. That’s what we would call her today because her category no longer exists. She was a cabaret singer. When she was unfairly rejected for a scholarship to study classical piano at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she supported herself by playing popular music in bars and restaurants. She would sing and play whatever songs were on the radio. It was a very demanding job, and playing those songs night after night is what molded her into the greatest interpreter both as a vocalist and a pianist.

To the second objection, that she isn’t remembered for her compositions, I can only point to her unforgettable performance of Mississippi Goddamn, a composition of her own. With a cheerful piano accompaniment, and a melody that pushes the piece forward, she managed to write and perform a song that defines courage. The music is a beautiful, confident show tune that carries lyrics about one of the worst tragedies in American history. The effect is a better expression of the black experience in this country than any other performance in jazz.

So please, remember Nina Simone.

Here’s my playlist of Nina Simone’s best tracks to help her cause.

2018: The Year of the EP!

Well, the full length album is dead. It lived a long and brilliant life. Highlights included work from The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Joanna Newsom, Popol Vuh, AC/DC, and Galantis. But the fact is that nobody is listening to full length albums in 2018.

People are listening to playlists on Spotify, which are often made up mostly of singles from disparate artists. With the exception of the one percent of hardcore music listeners, nobody has the patience to listen to a full length album of music. Even the real music fans I know, who go to concerts with me several times a month, do not listen to full length albums.

But people do want more than singles.

So in 2018, we witnessed the explosion of a form that has come to be called “The EP”. It’s an extremely history-laden name for a short collection of music. An EP usually lasts at least ten minutes, and includes no more than seven individual tracks.

For me, personally, it’s what I listened to most in 2018. When I was listening to Discover Weekly and Release Radar on Spotify, I was seeking out experiences that were more than just a single piece of music, but an hour was usually too much music, even for me.

This is a format that works really well for indie musicians. It’s hard to write an hour of cohesive music that is strong from beginning to end. It’s much easier to write ten to twenty minutes of strong, cohesive music. And each EP can be different. EPs allow artists to explore more than singles or full length albums.

So here’s a playlist I made that consists of tracks from EPs I liked this year. It’s mostly indie electronic music, but there’s some Hip-Hop in there as well and a few tracks by well established artists.

Thanks for listening!

Three parallels between E. M. Forster and J. R. R. Tolkien

Forster and Tolkien are not much alike on the surface, but if you peer just a bit deeper, the similarities start popping out.

1. Both served in the First World War

Both served in the war in their own way. Neither wanted to be a soldier. Tolkien was coerced by his relatives to join the army as a matter of honor. Forster knew he wasn’t cut out to be a soldier, so he served the Red Cross as a conscientious objector.

Both men were deeply affected by the war. Some people link the war with Forster’s cessation in novel writing. Everyone can see the cynicism that runs through A Passage to India that just wasn’t as present in the earlier novels. Tolkien wrote primarily about soldiers, at least in The Lord of the Rings. All of the characters serve the war effort, and come back altered.

Tolkien in WWI
Tolkien in WWI

2. Both mixed fantasy with Englishness

In Tolkien’s books, he takes regular English people and puts them into a deep fantasy world. Bilbo Baggins is drafted from his bourgeois, middle class world, into the world of heroes and dragons. In The Lord of the Rings, the four hobbits are transformed from humble country folk to slayers of great beasts.

Forster does the exact opposite. He brings fantasy events into everyday English lives. This is particularly clear in his short stories where English people struggle to deal with fantastical events. Take the mysterious writing on the shaving glass in The Purple Envelope or the posession of a young boy’s body in Story of a Panic.

But fantastic events occur in the novels too, such as when Adela Quested and Ronnie hit an animal with their car. The narrator tells us of all the potential ghosts that may be intervening.

3. Both were academics

Tolkien is still remembered as one of the great philologists, and founders of modern linguistics. He studied medieval European literature and languages and applied that knowledge to his fiction. The great mythology of Middle Earth is built upon very similar tales to those Tolkien studied. In fact, the names of the dwarfs in The Hobbit were stolen from an ancient text.

Forster recieved an Honorary Doctorate from Leidens University
Forster recieved an Honorary Doctorate from Leidens University

Forster did much the same thing, although at a lesser scale. Forster is remembered for his lectures that became Aspects of the Novel, but he didn’t change the academic landscape like Tolkien. Still, he studied classical Greek and Roman mythologies as an undergrad, and populated all his novels with those gods.

It was Phaethon who drove them to Fiesole that memorable day, a youth all irresponsibility and fire, recklessly urging his master’s horses up the stony hill.

Don’t Buy a Kindle. Here’s why.

I’ve been a loyal Kindle user since the beginning. I’ve owned about twelve Kindles, from the initial basic model, through the Paperwhite, to the Fire and all its incarnations.

And the Kindle is still fine for reading books. If you only want to read books, then the Paperwhite is a great experience.

This post is aimed at the tablets. If you want to use your Kindle as a general media device, for movies, email, games, shopping, as well as books, then it is an awful choice.

I haven’t decided on which tablet to buy next. All I’ve decided for sure is that it won’t be a Kindle. Here’s why.

1. Irrelevant notifications that can’t be dismissed

I do not own an Alexa device. I have never deliberately used Alexa in my life. Yet, for three months I’ve had a notification on my Kindle that says “Alexa Accessories.” This notification cannot be clicked. It cannot be dismissed. It’s just there.

2. The Amazon App Store lacks great apps

Amazon has done little to nothing to grow their app store. As such it is a graveyard of shovelware. Do you want the latest game from Nintendo? It’s not on Amazon. In fact very few great apps or games make it to the Amazon App Store. And the ones that do are buggy. The developers aren’t debugging the issues that come up exclusively for Amazon devices. They don’t care about the tiny audience.

3. The Amazon version of Android is buggy and ugly

The ultimate reason not to buy a Kindle tablet is that the operating system is garbage. It’s buggy, slow, and ugly. For months, there has been a bug where if you click a book on your device that isn’t the most recently read book, it will just open the most recently read book. For someone like me, who reads two books at once, this is incredibly frustrating. Also, if you play an audiobook, then power off the screen, the audiobook will continue playing briefly, then stop. When you log in to your device again, a totally different book will be on the screen.

Loyalty punished…

I guess part of what makes this so frustrating is that I have been a loyal customer for so long. I’ve used Amazon devices for over a decade. I’ve purchased movies, TV shows, games, and hundreds of books through Amazon devices. To have the ecosystem devolve into unusability and irrelevance is frustrating. I know I can get the Amazon media apps, and the Kindle reader app on my new devices. That is good, but I am sad to go.

Anyway, I hope this post helps to inform your shopping.

Getting Lost in Pop

I’ve spent so much of my life making legitimately weird music. See my algorithmic music on bandcamp for that. So it’s only natural that at some point I would go completely in the opposite direction, and that time is now.

Lately I have just been loving pop music. I love listening to it. I love making it. It’s just fun. When making music in a pop style it’s really easy to find collaborators. After all, most musicians are trying to make “pop” in one way or another. And the collaborations usually run along predefined lines. e.g. “I’ll make the music, and you do the vocals.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing lately. Tons of collaborations on tons of fun pop songs. Here’s my latest on Spotify with Drizztopher Walken.

And these collaborations push me to explore more of my own ideas too. My daughters started listening to Galantis recently, a group that I fell in love with a few years back. And those two things have pushed me to make fun, danceable pop, and to even try to include my daughters (who are aged 2 and 4). Here’s my latest on SoundCloud with special appearances by both of my daughters.

So what does this say about me? Am I going to make pop for the rest of my life? Do I have bad taste in music? I don’t know. For know, I know that I’m having a lot of fun making pop.

It’s really difficult to write about E. M. Forster

When I started getting into A Room with a View a few years back, I kept reading it over and over again. In each reading, I would find something new. Something would be changed, revealed, or transmuted into something new. It was fascinating. But there were still things that I didn’t understand. Some of the places and artiss were obscure. Some of the referenced literature was very obscure.

I started taking notes on the novel. Whenever I came across something that was obscured by distance, time, or education, I would look it up online and produce a little note to myself about it. Eventually, I had enough of these to think, ‘hey, I should share these with other people!’

That’s where things got tricky. After all, I don’t want to share spurious or incorrect notes. I want to share notes that increase the enjoyment of the book for casual readers and fans. But how can I know if one of my notes is incorrect? How can I be sure that what I’m pointing out isn’t very subjective or obvious?

So I thought I should at least read his other novels to get some context. I read his first novel first. Where Angels Fear to Tread is, in most respects, not a great novel. But it does begin to reveal Forster’s unique approach to realism. Next I picked up The Longest Journey. That book is truly boring. It was a slog to get through, and I don’t know how anyone enjoys it without knowing a lot about Forster’s biography.

Then I read The Machine Stops, which is fabulous and unique and ahead of its time. So I thought maybe Forster had a particular gift for short fiction? So I read all of his short fiction that was in collections (which I know now is not all his short fiction). It was excellent, but there wasn’t very much of it. So I went back to the novels. I finished with Howard’s End, A Passage to India, and Maurice, each of which is a masterpiece in its own way.

Then I went back to my original task. I could finally say something about Forster’s most popular book from a position of authority, right?

Well, no. I soon learned that Forster produced even more essays and non-fiction than he produced fiction. I read his guide to Alexandria, and some of his essay collections. I couldn’t get through it all, and some of his collections are difficult to acquire these days.

Then I thought I should read a biography. So I read Wendy Moffat’s excellent book.

At this point, I’m years away from my original task. I have more or less forgotten that I ever wanted to say anything about Forster and his most famous novel. Still, I’ve realized that he also wrote a lot of letters, and the selected letters are available in bound collections. I’m duty-bound to read them, right?

I read as much of the letters as I could, but I think you can see the problem. It’s really hard to say anything with authority about a writer who produced such a massive volume of words as EM Forster. The novels, essays, non-fiction, lectures, and letters amount to such a vast quantity of work that I would put it up against even the most fecund modern novelists. It’s unbelievable.

Then there’s the critics, biographers, and academics. I can see how a grad student could get very dis-heartened. How can you hope to add to the vast discourse on such a popular, beloved author? …

I don’t know if I will ever finish taking notes on A Room with a View (and now Forster’s other novels too). All I know at this point is that the journey has become the goal. Reading and studying Forster’s work and the work about Forster has become a little hobby of mine. Maybe I won’t ever say anything about Forster, but I’ll have a lot of fun not saying it!

SoundCloud, I love you, but you’re terrible

I finally started using SoundCloud for a new jazz/electro project called Fynix. I casually used it in the past under my own name, in order to share WIP tracks, or just odd stuff that didn’t fit on bandcamp. But I never used it seriously until recently. Now I am using it every day, and trying to connect with other artists. I am remixing one track a week, listening to everything on The Upload, and liking/commenting as much as I can.

SoundCloud is the best social network for musicians right now. But it still has a terrible identity crisis. Most of the services seem to be aimed at listeners, or aimed at nobody in particular.

So in this post, I’m going to vent about SoundCloud. It’s a good platform, but with a few changes it could be great.

1. I am an artist. Stop treating me like a listener.

Is it really that difficult for you to recognize that I am a musician, and not a listener? I’ve uploaded 15 tracks. It seems like a pretty simple conditional check to me. So why is my home feed cluttered up with reposts? Why can’t I easily find the new tracks by my friends?

This is the core underlying problem with SoundCloud. It has two distinct types of users, and yet it treats all users the same.

2. Your “Who to Follow” recommendations suck. They REALLY suck.

I’ve basically stopped checking “Who to Follow” even though I want to connect with as many musicians as possible. The recommendations seem arbitrary and just plain stupid.

The main problem is that, as a musician, I want to follow other musicians. I want to follow people who will interact with me, and who will promote my work as much as I promote theirs. Yet, the “Who to Follow” list is full of seemingly random people.

Is this person from the same city as me? No. Do they follow lots of people / will they follow back? No. Are they working in a genre similar to mine? No. Do they like and comment on lots of tracks? No.

So why the heck would I want to follow them?

3. Where are my friends latest tracks?

This last one is just infuriating. When I log in, I want to see the latest tracks posted by my friends. So I go to my homescreen, and it is pure luck if I can find something posted by someone I actually talk to on SoundCloud. It’s all reposts. Even if I unfollow all the huge repost accounts, I am stuck looking at reposts by my friends, rather than their new tracks.

Okay, so let’s click the dropdown and go to the list of users I am “following”. Are they sorted by recent activity? No. They are sorted by the order in which I followed them. To find out if they have new tracks, I must click on them individually and check their profiles. Because that is really practical.

Okay, so maybe there’s a playlist of my friends tracks on the Discover page? Nope. It’s all a random collection of garbage.

As far as I can tell, there is no way for me to listen to my friends’ recent tracks. This discourages real interactions.

Ultimately, the problem is data, and intelligence. SoundCloud has none.

You could blame design for these problems. The website shows a lack of direction, as if committees are leading the product in lots of different directions. SoundCloud seems to want to focus on listeners, to compete in the same space as Spotify.

But even if that’s the case, it should be trivial to see that I don’t use the website like a regular listener. I use it like a musician. I want to connect and interact with other musicians.

And this is such a trivial data/analytics problem that I can only think that they aren’t led by data at all. Maybe this is just what I see because I lead our data team, but it seems apparent to me that data is either not used, or used poorly in all these features.

For instance, shouldn’t the “Who to Follow” list be based on who I have followed in the past? I’ve followed lots of people who make jazz/electro music, yet no jazz/electro artists are in my “Who to Follow” list. I follow people who like and comment on my tracks, yet I am told to follow people who follow 12 people and have never posted a comment.

The most disappointing thing is that none of this is hard.

4. Oh yeah, and your browser detection sucks.

When I am browsing your site on my tablet, I do not want to use the app. I do not want your very limited mobile site. I just want the regular site (and yes, I know I can get it with a few extra clicks, but it should be the default).

Tips for Managing Joins in Looker

Looker is a fantastic product. It really makes data and visualizations much more manageable. The main goal of Looker is to allow people who aren’t data analysts to do some basic data analysis. To some extent, it achieves this, but there are limits to how far this can go. Ultimately, Looker is a big graphical user interface for writing SQL and generating charts. Under-the-hood, it’s programmable by data engineers, but it’s limited by the fact that non-technical users are using it.

The major design challenge for Looker is joins. A data engineer writes the joins into what Looker calls “explores”. Explores are rules for how data can be explored, but ultimately just a container for joins. When someone creates a new chart, they start by selecting an explore, and thus selecting the joins that will be used in the chart.

They pick the join from a dropdown under the word “Explore”. This is the main design bottleneck. Such a UI encourages users to have only a limited number of joins that can fit in the vertical resolution of the screen. This means limiting the number of explores, and hence limiting the ways tables are joined. This encourages using pre-existing joins for new charts.

This creates two problems.

  1. A non-technical user will not understand the implication of choosing an explore. They may not see that the explore they chose limits how the data can be analyzed. In fact, a non-savvy user may pick the wrong explore entirely, and create a chart that is entirely wrong.
  2. The joins may evolve over time. A programmer might change a join for a new chart, and this may make old charts incorrect.

The problem is that SQL joins are fundamentally interpretations of the data. Unless a join occurs on id fields AND is a one-to-one relationship, then a join interprets the data in some way.

So how can you limit the negative impact of re-using joins?

1. Encourage simple charts

Encourage your teammates to make charts as simple as possible. If possible, a chart should show a single quantity as it changes over a single dimension. This should eliminate or minimize the use of joins in the chart, thus making it far more future-proof.

2. Give explores long, verbose names

Make explore names as descriptive as possible. Try to communicate the choice that a user is making when they choose an explore. For instance, you might name one explore “Products Today” and another one “Product Events Over Time”. These names might indicate that the first explore looks at the products table, but the second explore shows events relating to products joined with a time dimension.

One of the mistakes I made while first starting out with Looker is naming the explores with single word names. I now see that short names create maintenance nightmares. Before assessing the problems with a given chart, I need to know which explore the maker chose for it, and because the names were selected so poorly, the choice was often incorrect.

I hope these ideas help you find a path to a maintainable data project. To be honest, I have a lot of digging-out to do!