Want to be less popular at cocktail parties on the West Coast? Try being a virtual reality skeptic. I can't help but feel validated, though, by this post from Wagner James Au looking back at 1992, just one of a few times in history we've been exactly as excited about VR as we are about the Oculus Rift now.
I met Mr. Au years ago when we were both writing about virtual worlds and the metaverse -- he was Second Life's official (first ever?) embedded journalist. I was writing articles about wealthy owners of virtual land and how the 3D web was our certain future. Since then I've grown leery of technologies that are mostly led by the imaginations of Snow Crash fans rather than by practical applications. I have not yet come upon anything intuitive and compelling enough to make me commit regular, daily applications of black-helmeted nausea to the agenda of my simple, one-touch daily life.
But I want to believe, honest. The coupling of alienation and novelty offered by the Oculus headwear might have interesting applications for art -- a possibility recently explored by musician Erika M. Anderson, who records as EMA. Her 2014 album The Future's Void very conscientiously examined how we mediate relationships through technology; this article by my friend Sophie Weiner about women musicians like EMA negotiating digital culture and surveillance state is worth your time.
EMA wore a VR headset on her album cover -- she's poised as if midsentence, as if in the midst of casual communication, with this great black brick obscuring all of her facial features. Read the rest
Via the Toys and Techniques blog, Franco Potenza's "Vita e lavoro nell'acqua" ("Life and work in the water"), c.1969, is a beautiful example of library music meant to accompany underwater-themed visuals. In the media business, library music is music that's usually owned outright by a company and then licensed to customers who use it as soundtracks for TV shows, radio programs, and industrial films. There's still a wealth of amazing vintage library music warping away on vinyl in warehouses, basements, thrift stores, and record shops around the globe awaiting rediscovery by intrepid crate-diggers.
Previously: "BBC radio documentary on Library Music" Read the rest
The soundtrack to Forbidden Planet (1956) was a milestone moment in the history of electronic music. It was the first entirely electronic film score, composed by Louis and Bebe Barron using DIY circuitry inspired in part by Norbert Wiener's 1948 book Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, a seminal text in its own right. At the time that the film's producer at MGM, Dore Schary, met the Barrons they were beatnik musicians hanging out in Greenwich Village. The soundtrack to Forbidden Planet continues to astonish even today. (Listen to the "Main Title" at left.) My friend Ken Hollings, author of the fantastic outré history book "Welcome to Mars," created a wonderful audio documentary that just aired on BBC Radio 3 about the Barrons and their iconic "electronic tonalities."
You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 piece here: "Sound of Cinema: Return of the Monster from the Id"
And you buy the soundtrack here: "Forbidden Planet: Original MGM Soundtrack Read the rest
MAKE has published a cool new book, called Make: Analog Synthesizers by Ray Wilson. It's a deep dive into DIY synthesized music, with lots of circuits and information on using electronic components, but it has plenty of introductory material so it's suitable for electronics novices. I admire the author's design aesthetic too -- the devices he shows you how to build look neat. Read the rest
You don't play the ANS synthesizer with a keyboard. Instead you etch images onto glass sheets covered in black putty and feed them into a machine that shines light through the etchings, trigging a wide range of tones. Etchings made low on the sheets make low tones. High etchings make high tones. The sound is generated in real-time and the tempo depends on how fast you insert the sheets.
This isn't a new Dorkbot or Maker Faire oddity. It's a nearly forgotten Russian synthesizer designed by Evgeny Murzin in 1938. The synth was named after and dedicated to the Russian experimental composer and occultist Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872–1915). The name might not mean much to you, but it illuminates a long running connection between electronic music and the occult. Read the rest
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While Pierre Schaeffer is often thought of as the father of the electronic music form known as musique concrète
the gentleman above, Halim El-Dabh, actually got there several years before, 1944 to be exact. Born in Egypt in 1921, El-Dabh studied agriculture at Cairo University while playing piano and other traditional instruments as a pastime. One day, the student and a friend borrowed a wire recorder -- a device predating magnetic tape -- from the Middle East Radio Station and hit the streets to capture ambient sounds. El-Dabh recorded a spirit-summoning ritual called a zaar ceremony and ultimately found that he could use the sounds as the raw ingredients for a new composition. In a recent interview with the Electronic Music Foundation, El-Dabh, who is University Professor Emeritus of African Ethnomusicology at Kent State University and continues to compose music, tells the story of his musical career, including this bit about the pioneering 1944 piece listenable above
, an excerpt from "The Expression of Zaar":
We had to sneak in (to the ritual) with our heads covered like the women, since men were not allowed in. I recorded the music and brought the recording back to the radio station and experimented with modulating the recorded sounds. I emphasized the harmonics of the sound by removing the fundamental tones and changing the reverberation and echo by recording in a space with movable walls. I did some of this using voltage controlled devices. It was not easy to do. Read the rest