Other Music of 2017

On computermusicblog.com I did my year-end roundup of the best EDM of 2017. Like any of these lists, it’s a very opinionated list. In this post I want to mention a few other albums I really liked that didn’t make the cut.

There are a few albums that I really enjoyed this year, but weren’t really striking in any way. They were enjoyable to listen to, but they didn’t stand out. Biggest amongst them is probably the new album from Odesza. It’s a fine album, but it nothing in it is unexpected. For me, one of the biggest surprises of the year was the amazing live show Odesza put on to support a relatively mediocre album. Another album that was good, but not great, was Float bySlow Magic. I really enjoyed listening to The Invincible EP by Big Wild, but in the end it just sounds kind of generic.

There are a few other albums that I discovered in 2017, and listened to a lot, but were actually released in previous years. I somehow missed Braincase by Electric Mantis when it was originally released. It’s a dope album of instrumental trap. Also great is the Kindred Spirits EP by Jai Wolf. I managed to see Jai Wolf twice in concert this year because he was coincidentally playing at events I wanted to see. His pure, old-fashioned turntable mastery absolutely dominated festivals crowded by much bigger names, and his EP is worth a few dozen listens.

Last up are the albums that BARELY missed the cut. There were hundreds of great albums released in 2017. Even focusing on EDM exclusively leaves more great albums than I could possibly list. I listened to Full Circle by Oliver probably twenty times. It’s great for getting psyched up for a hard job, or just for getting your hips moving. The new album from Giraffage is also great. It’s an album that really lives up to his previous releases. It feels mellow, sexy, and fun all at the same time. When I saw him live in San Jose, the show was filled with college kids, and that made me feel old. But I think it’s an album that has wide appeal to all listeners to EDM.

And that’s all the other albums from 2017 that I want to talk about.

Okay, obviously that’s not true. I loved so many more albums. LCD Soundsystem made a triumphant comeback. Bonobo released a very solid album earlier in the year. Bonnie and Clyde were the darlings of the internet for a week or two. I thought Sofi Tukker was over-hyped, but then they were terrific live. BVD Kult released a pretty paint-by-numbers pop/EDM track that I absolutely adored. Vitalic released a disappointing album. Jerry Folk released an album that I have very mixed feelings about. Some people from YouTube released some really good music. And someone named Andrew Applepie made a bunch of music that is actually really great in a quirky kind of way.

There was so much great music in 2017. Looking forward to 2018, there is a lot to be pessimistic about. Vladimir Putin seems intent on starting a war. Trump and the Republicans seem intent on destroying democracy in America. But still, it’s going to be a great year for music, and for human culture generally.

DIY Music Branding

Branding, marketing, advertising … they’re necessary evils. Whenever I start a new project I take time to think out the image I want to project. I wish that music could just be music. I wish it could just be sound heard and not seen. But that’s naive. We live in a post-MTV world where music listeners connect their music with a lifestyle, an image, and a brand.

When I started a new beat-driven music project, I was thinking of making trancey electronica under the name of Fynix. So I created a sleek, futuristic logo based on similar designs on groups such as Odesza, and Armin van Buuren.

I’m pretty proud of it.

But after making more music, I have drifted away from trance into a more soul-influenced, keyboard-based style. So the old branding makes no sense.

So how can I connect my image with soul music and soul-inspired electronica? I started by looking at similar acts. I like this art from Faking It by Calvin Harris.

Faking It by Calvin Harris

I also like the branding for Charles Bradley. The image for Spotify Sessions is particularly nice.

Charles Bradley Spotify Sessions

I also want to connect with older soul artists like Sam Cooke and James Brown. Even though my music may not share many qualities with theirs, I want my imagery to put me in the same bucket.

Sam Cooke Wonderful World

After looking at a bunch of images of Sam Cooke, James Brown, Charles Bradley, and some electronica acts, I came up with a few guidelines.

  • Warm colors. James Brown and Sam Cooke use a lot of oranges, browns and reds on their album covers. Using the same color palette will help.
  • Cosmopolitan. Charles Bradley and other funk artists use a lot of images of the city. Maybe this is an artifact of the association with Detroit. Whatever the cause, I’d like to project a cosmopolitan image.
  • Natural Fabrics. Leather jackets are big in the Charles Bradley and James Brown branding. I don’t want a picture of myself in my branding, but if I could connect with something physical that would be good.
  • Sans Serif Fonts. Flat-colored text using basic fonts.

The funk and soul branding also prominently features portraits. Mostly artists looking at or near the camera, with strong lighting. Often the artist is wearing a suit, or a leather jacket. I might do something like this in the future, but I would need a photographer.

For now, I executed my branding guidelines pretty directly. I am from Pittsburgh, so I found a warm-colored picture of Pittsburgh on Wikimedia Commons. Then I wrote “FYNIX” in the middle using a Sans Serif font. Then I applied the newsprint effect to associate my brand with newspapers, which have a real-world physicality that unifies the ideas of the city and natural fabrics.

Here’s the result.

Fynix Branding

I like this because it is legible even when scaled very small, and it looks like the Calvin Harris branding, while subtly calling to mind soul acts of the past.

In which I complain about the lcd soundsystem show…

This feels like a blog post from 2004. I want to complain about some super popular thing as if anyone cares about my opinion. Whatever. I’m going to write it anyway.

I went to see LCD Soundsystem at The Bill Graham last night. The auditorium was packed with a concert audience that actually made me feel young for once. The show was generally excellent, at least in the music sense. It was a great performance. Maybe you could complain that some of the performances were virtually identical to London Sessions. Or maybe you could complain that they only played five tracks off the new album. But that’s picking nits. They ended with All My Friends, so I really can’t complain too much about the music.

LCD Soundsystem at The Bill Graham

And here’s the part where I get up on my soapbox about some nonsense.

1. POINT THE FUCKING LIGHTS AT THE BAND

Point the fucking lights at the band. No. NO!. Stop your shit. Nobody cares about your art, we just want to see the fucking band. Seriously.

The band was back-lit for 2/3rds of the show. Bright spots were pouring over James Murphy’s shoulders into the audience’s eyes. He looked fabulous in silhouette. At least I think he looked fabulous. It was tough to see him at all. Since the lights were pointed at the fucking audience.

2. YOUR T-SHIRT IDEAS ARE NOT FUNNY

I can’t believe I bought this shirt.

Terrible LCD Soundsystem Shirt

All you had to do was show the picture of James Murphy, and underneath it, write “LCD Soundsystem”. Instead you gave us this monstrosity.

“So Evan, why didn’t you buy the other shirt?”

I did buy it, and it’s a fucking tie-dye.

Terrible Tie Dye LCD Soundsystem T-Shirt

Seriously? SERIOUSLY?!?!? Has anyone who cares about clothing ever actually worn a tie-dyed t-shirt?

Anyway, I know those are pretty minor points. But I was really excited to finally see one of my favorite bands, and these two little things really grated on me.

PS. Yes, there were even more tragic shirt options. In plain white.

I paid my dues to see David Gray live

One of the reasons I am fascinated with both computer science and music is that each is a bit like magic. Each has invisible power to make change.

Yesterday, my daughter woke up with the flu. Actually, we found out today that she has croup, which is apparently going around her school. So Erin stayed home with her, while I went to work. But we also had to cancel our plans for the evening. Instead of going to the David Gray concert together, I would go alone.

At work, I was stuck in a meeting that seemed like it would never end. During this meeting, I got a headache that kept getting worse and worse. When I rubbed my head, I could feel my temperature rising. I could tell that I was getting sick too. The meeting dragged on for four hours, but I pushed through it.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted and feverish. I had driven to work, because I was still going to make it to the concert, even if I was going alone. But in Palo Alto, you have to do a dance with the parking authority if you want to park for free. You have to move your car every two hours, from one colored zone to another. I left work a little early because I knew there would be traffic on the drive, but when I found my car, there was a bright orange envelope on the windshield. I owe Palo Alto $53.

At that point I had paid $70 for the tickets, plus $53 for the parking ticket, so I had invested $123 to see David Gray. The parking ticket only steeled my resolve. I was going to see him come hell or high water.

And this is all sort of silly, because I don’t even like David Gray that much. Mostly, I have a deep sense of nostalgia for his one hit album that came out right before I went to college. I listened to it a lot in college. At the time, he was the only person I knew of who was doing singer-songwriter-plus-drum-machine really well. When I found out that Erin couldn’t come to the concert, I tried to explain this to my younger coworkers who I invited to the concert. They were nonplussed to say the least. A singer-songwriter with a drum machine really doesn’t sound very compelling today. It sounds practically commonplace. But nobody had quite figured out the formula back in 1998. So David Gray felt really fresh to me at the time.

My point is, I’m not a David Gray fanboy. I just respect the amount of time I spent listening to him when I was younger. Unfortunately, this is not enough to convince others to drive all the way up to Oakland for a concert.

The drive was hellish. If you have ever commuted from San Jose to/from Oakland during rush hour, then you know how this goes. The Greek Theater is only 40 miles from my workplace. The best route that Google could calculate took two and a half hours. I was in traffic for every minute of that drive, with a rising fever. It was extremely painful, and even though I left work fifteeen minutes early, I still arrived 10 minutes late.

But when I pulled up to the parking garage, things seemed to turn around. By this point I had a very high fever, the sun had gone down, and it was raining. So I couldn’t see the “Full” sign on the parking garage until I had already pulled in using the wrong lane. Everyone was continuing on to the next lot. At first I tried to back out of the garage, but then I realized that it wasn’t really full. So I pulled into a spot. I’d take my chances.

Then I stepped out into the rain, and started running to the theater. I could hear the music pouring over the hills. I saw a man standing in the rain, asking for extra tickets. I knew he was just going to scalp them, so I almost walked by, but fuck it, who cares. I gave him my extra ticket.

Then I ran up the steps, and breezed through security. I climbed to the top of the hill, and the music hit me.

That’s the moment when you feel the true power of music. I was all alone and feverish, in the rain after a long day of work and an awful drive to the theater, yet the music seemed to heal me. I could feel myself recovering as the sound washed over me.

I didn’t really talk to anyone. I listened to the music, and watched from the top of the grass. David Gray has a good band, and he has a good audience rapport. Even though his music isn’t as fresh today as it was in 1998, it still changed me last night.

I bought a shirt, and felt a lot better on the drive home.

David Gray at the Greek Theater in Berkeley

David Gray North American Tour 2017 Shirt

Erratum, an Album Made Entirely with Custom Noise Apps

Erratum is an album that has been in gestation for over a year, and even as I release it into the wild I am refining my ideas about it, and apps, and the place of apps in music-making.

Erratum noise music album cover

Every track on the album was made using freely available sound mangling apps of my own creation. This intersects with my current philosophies about music and music-making in a few ways.

First, by making all the apps publicly available, I’m basically open-sourcing the album. Okay, the apps aren’t open source (yet), but other musicians can now very easily make very similar music. I think this is a good thing. I hope people find my apps useful. But this is a significant change from my thinking of just a few years ago, which was dominated by a slightly-more-insular academic perspective. The academic perspective says something like “I put in a lot of working making the software, so why should I let just anyone use it, or copy my algorithms.” This is an attitude displayed often by the old-guard type of guys I learned from, and in my previous art albums like Disconnected, I took the same stance. With the continuing dominance of social media over good-old-fashioned-blogs, I’m starting to think that sharing is more important than building up my own ivory tower though, and I tried to do that with this album.

Second, this album is full of short pieces. I’m starting to come around to the idea reflected in Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes, which is that if you’re going to write weird music, it’s better to write many short pieces or movements than to write something monolithic. So each of the pieces on this album are short and unique. The album is held together only by the thread of the mobile apps used to make them.

Finally, this album reflects the increasing pleasure I get from listing to music that is very close to noise. Some listeners might call some of this music noise. One of the apps I used to create this album, Radio Synthesizer simply adds radio-like noise to an audio file in greater or lesser proportions. When I had my first child I remember putting her to sleep with white noise, and for awhile, white noise was 100% effective at putting her to sleep. I think that made me more appreciative of all the different ways that noise can be generated. This album reflects a lot of different ways of getting to and from a noise-like state.

Stream Erratum from evanxmerz.bandcamp.com or check out the apps I used to make it on Google Play.

Two Duets Composed by Cellular Automata

In the past few days I’ve completed several programs that compose rather nice notated music using cellular automata. Yesterday I posted seven solos generated by cellular automata. Today I am following up with two duets. Like the solos, these pieces were generated using elementary cellular automata.

All of these pieces look rather naked. In the past I’ve added tempo, dynamics, and articulations to algorithmic pieces where the computer only generated pitches and durations. Lately I feel like it’s best to present the performer with exactly what was generated, and leave the rest up to the performer. So these pieces are a bit more like sketches, in the sense that the performer will fill out some of the details.

Download the score for Two Duets Composed by Cellular Automata for any instruments by Evan X. Merz.

Seven Solos Composed by Cellular Automata

I’ve collected several pieces composed using cellular automata into one package.

This collection of seven solos for any instrument was created by computer programs that simulate cellular automata. A cellular automaton is a mathematical system containing many cellular units that change over time according to a predetermined rule set. The most famous cellular automaton is Conway’s Game of Life. Cellular automata such as Conway’s Game of Life and the ones used to compose these pieces are capable of generating complex patterns from a very small set of rules. These solos were created by mapping elementary cellular automata to music data. One automaton was mapped to pitch data and a second automaton was mapped to rhythm data. A unique rule set was crafted to generate unique patterns for each piece.

Download the score for Seven Solos Composed by Cellular Automata for any instrument by Evan X. Merz.