Book Review: Life of a Song

I recently had the chance to read Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the worlds best-loved songs. It’s a concise collection of fifty Life of a Song articles from the Financial Times. As I rarely have a reason to visit the FT website, and I only occasionally catch the Life of a Song podcast, the book was a great opportunity to catch up on what I’d missed. Regular readers may find nothing new in the book, but for pop fans and die-hard listeners, the short collection is definitely worth a read.

Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the worlds best-loved songs

The book consists of fifty articles from the regular Life of a Song column collected into book form. Each article takes on a different, well-loved tune from twentieth century popular music. Songs covered include ‘My Way’, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, ‘1999’, ‘La Vie en Rose’, and ‘This Land is Your Land’. There are only a few songs in the list that I didn’t know off the top of my head, including ‘Song to the Siren’, and ‘Rocket 88’. The articles usually include some remarks about the songwriter, often quoting them about their creation. Then they cover the journey from composition to hit recording, and usually mention other interpretations that followed the hit.

Each article appears to be less than 1000 words. As you might expect, that’s a lot to cover in that much room. So each article is pretty topical, relating a single anecdote about it, and only touching on the rest. For instance, in the article about ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, the author relates the recording process that shaped the final sound.

On take four of the remake, serendipity strikes. Session guitarist Al Kooper, 21, a friend of the band, walks in holding his guitar, hoping to join in. He is deemed surplus to requirements, but Dylan decides he wants an organ in addition to piano, and Kooper volunteers to fill in. He improvises his part, as he would later recall, ‘like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch’. And suddenly the song turns into the tumbling, cascading version that will become the finished article.

There’s two pieces of information that you need to know about this book in order to enjoy it.

  1. It is a collection of short articles by many contributors.
  2. Those writers are almost entirely arts journalists, rather than trained musicians.

This book was written by a lot of authors. I counted fourteen contributors, each of whom appears to be an English journalist. This can lead to the book feeling somewhat disjointed. Each author is comfortable talking about their own domain of the music industry. Some interpret the lyrics, others relate interviews with creators, others pick up on business maneuvers behind the scenes.

In the introduction, David Chael and Jan Dalley write that the book “is not about singers, or stars, or chart success – although of course they come into the story. It is about the music itself”. If you are a musician, this may leave you expecting musical analysis, lyrical breakdowns, or at least comparisons to similar songs. The book “is about music” in as much as it tells stories about musicians, but it is strictly an outsiders perspective. There’s no illusion that the writers were part of the culture of the song, or involved themselves with the people in the story. A reader shouldn’t expect that in a collection such as this.

My favorite article is the one about ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’. That song has so much soul, that it surprised me to learn that the original title, given to the tune by its white songwriter, was ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’.

The soul singer Cissy Houston… decided to record its first cover version… But the title irked. It wasn’t the collision of Houstons – singer and subject – that bothered her, but one of authenticity. If she was going to sing this song, she had to feel it. And, she later said, ‘My people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.’

Ultimately, Life of a Song is a great book to read on the way to and from work, or to sit in your book bin next to your favorite chair. It’s a book that can be read in lots of small chunks, and each chunk reveals a little bit more about a song than the recording.

Now if you don’t mind, I need to catch a plane to Houston.

Read “Sound Synthesis in Java” Today

I’ve spent the last several months working on a new book about programming synthesizers in Java. The book is finally finished and available to read on my site, and available for purchase in Kindle format on Amazon.com.

Sound Synthesis in Java Cover Image

The book has two parts. The first part is 11 chapters long and introduces basic synthesis concepts like unit generators, envelopes, filters, additive synthesis, and modulation synthesis. The later chapters deal with slightly more complex issues around granular synthesis and rendering output. The second part of the book is a list of demo projects where I show readers how to build some of the features found in popular hardware synthesizers, such as an arpeggiator.

To some degree this book is a follow up to my previous book, Sonifying Processing: The Beads Tutorial, but it differs in several key ways. First, the new book is written in Java, not Processing, so it is aimed at a slightly more technical audience. But I’ve also included more introductory material, so there is material to help along newbies as well. Second, the book is more focused on building popular music synthesizers. There is a chapter about connecting up a MIDI keyboard, and the examples focus on instrumental, tonal sounds, rather than abstract sound mangling. Third, this book is focused more on synthesis techniques than on the Beads Library in general. So each chapter teaches one specific concept related to general purpose sound synthesis techniques.

Swarm Intelligence in Music in The Signal Culture Cookbook

The Signal Culture Group just published The Signal Culture Cookbook. I contributed a chapter titled “The Mapping Problem”, which deals with issues surrounding swarm intelligence in music and the arts. Swarm intelligence is a naturally non-human mode of intelligent behavior, so it presents some unique problems when being applied to the uniquely human behavior of creating art.

The cover of The Signal Culture Cookbook

The Signal Culture Cookbook is a collection of techniques and creative practices employed by artists working in the field of media arts. Articles include real-time glitch video processing, direct laser animation on film, transforming your drawing into a fake computer, wi-fi mapping, alternative uses for piezo mics, visualizing earthquakes in real time and using swarm algorithms to compose new musical structures. There’s even a great, humorous article on how to use offline technology for enhancing your online sentience – and more!

And here’s a quote from the introduction to my chapter.

Some composers have explored the music that arises from mathematical functions, such as fractals. Composers such as myself have tried to use computers not just to imitate the human creative process, but also to simulate the possibility of inhuman creativity. This has involved employing models of intelligence and computation that aren’t based on cognition, such as cellular automata, genetic algorithms and the topic of this article, swarm intelligence. The most difficult problem with using any of these systems in music is that they aren’t inherently musical. In general, they are inherently unrelated to music. To write music using data from an arbitrary process, the composer must find a way of translating the non-musical data into musical data. The problem of mapping a process from one domain to work in an entirely unrelated domain is called the mapping problem. In this article, the problem is mapping from a virtual swarm to music, however, the problem applies in similar ways to algorithmic art in general. Some algorithms may be easily translated into one type of art or music, while other algorithms may require complex math for even basic art to emerge.

Donate to the Signal Culture Group to get the full book!

Ad Hoc Artificial Intelligence in Algorithmic Music Composition

On October 4, I will be presenting at the 3rd Annual Workshop on Musical Metacreation. I will be presenting a paper on the ways that AI practitioners have used ad hoc methods in algorithmic music programs, and what that means for the field of computational creativity. The paper is titled Implications of Ad Hoc Artificial Intelligence in Music Composition.

This paper is an examination of several well-known applications of artificial intelligence in music generation. The algorithms in EMI, GenJam, WolframTones, and Swarm Music are examined in pursuit of ad hoc modifications. Based on these programs, it is clear that ad hoc modifications occur in most algorithmic music programs. We must keep this in mind when generalizing about computational creativity based on these programs. Ad hoc algorithms model a specific task, rather than a general creative algorithm. The musical metacreation discourse could benefit from the skepticism of the procedural content practitioners at AIIDE.

The workshop is taking place on the North Carolina State University campus in Raleigh, NC. Other presenters include Andie Sigler, Tom Stoll, Arne Eigenfeldt, and fellow NIU alumnus Tony Reimer.

The Mapping Problem: Swarm Intelligence in Music

This fall Signal Culture will publish the Signal Culture Cookbook containing a chapter called The Mapping Problem: Swarm Intelligence in Music that I wrote earlier this year. The chapter deals with all the potential problems that artists must deal with when using swarm intelligence in music, and shares shource code for several interesting mappings that I’ve used in the past.

Creativity in Algorithmic Music

Published in Hz Journal #18.

In this essay I am going to review the topic of creativity in algorithmic music [1], focusing on three perspectives on creativity offered by three groups of composers. The first section will review the definition of creativity offered by computational psychologist Margaret Boden. The second section will examine one possible measure of creativity. The next section will look at three different composers, their attitudes toward creativity and the way their algorithms embody those attitudes. Finally, I will critically examine the core questions that are being asked by algorithmic
composers.

Creativity in Algorithmic Music3.

Sonifying Processing

“Sonifying Processing: The Beads Tutorial” shows students and artists how to bring sound into their Processing programs. Veteran sound artist Evan X. Merz introduces the black art of audio in Processing through the versatile and easy-to-use Beads Library. The topic of audio is largely absent from other Processing books, but “Sonifying Processing” shows that Processing is a powerful multimedia platform that rivals Max. Each section of the book explains a sound programming concept then demonstrates it in code. The examples build from simple synthesizers in the first few chapters, to more complex sound-manglers as the book progresses. Each step of the way is examined at a level that is simple enough for new learners, and comfortable for more experienced programmers.