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Discovering a Company of Thieves

portable-imperial-party-time

In the age of the connected digital Network, they call it “discovery”. It’s not what you like right now, or what you’ve liked in the past — it might be described as what you’ll like in the future. Mostly it doesn’t work, but on occasion something delightful it discovered. The algorithm usually goes like this: if you like tea, you’d probably also like this weak tea. When a discovery occurs, it usually has nothing to do with tea.

The problem is “discovery” actually works through leaps, gaps and other forms of discontinuities. Algorithms can provide options along a path of logical extension. The further the extension moves from the source, the weaker the connection. The strange thing is that when the connection becomes so weak it’s non-existent, that’s when discovery might happen. Machines that attempt to replicate serendipity have trouble with this last piece. That zone of strangeness feels a bit like chaos to them — there’s no reason at all to take the next step in any particular direction. If you’ve been down this road, you know this point in a process of discovery is different from randomness. The accumulated context makes a difference.

When you’re young and for the first time discovering a lot of new music, there’s always some older figure who turns you on to the music from your future. There are new worlds in front of you — outside your realm of experience. A stack of records can give you a preview into the soundtrack of these alien worlds. This is how young minds are blown. It’s also the kind of peak experience that can stay with you for a lifetime. To some extent, all music going forward will be compared to those transformational sounds.

Once you’ve grown up, figured out what you like and filled up your library with your favorites; discovery becomes a much more difficult process. That transformational process isn’t likely to happen again. You “are” that older figure, and now you’re annoyed that young people today don’t appreciate the music that first turned you on.

If you’re storing your music in the cloud, your music provider probably knows your library better than you do. Every “play” is logged and plotted to determine what you currently like and what you’ll like and purchase next. This is where you’ll find complex genomes of music underlying auto-generated playlists mixing with the quantified self.

I recently discovered a band called “Company of Thieves“. I wasn’t looking for them, or anything like them. I was actually more interested in learning about what Daryl Hall was doing these days. I’d had an interest in him since his first solo album produced by King Crimson’s Robert Fripp — the long delayed “Sacred Songs“. (Check out his vocals on the song “North Star“). I’d seen a few moments of “Live from Daryl’s House” on television and traced it back to the web. YouTube provided a nice selection of the greatest hits from the show. The clips of “Company of Thieves” kept drawing me back. There was something about them. There isn’t an obvious link between Daryl Hall’s music and what Company of Thieves does. There’s no recommendation engine that spit would out “if you like Daryl Hall, you’ll probably like Company of Thieves”.

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Chicago-based Company of Thieves (Genevieve Schatz and Marc Walloch) has released two albums on Wind-Up Records, but despite their best efforts hadn’t broken through on any of the media that I follow. The band’s appearance on “Live from Daryl’s House” was in January of 2009. It’s with these four-year old videos that I started following their story. There’s not much in the mainstream music press. It was really through YouTube that I was able to piece together an idea of the range of the band’s sound.

While I loved The Beatles when I was younger, these days I find it hard to listen to them. I’ve heard the songs too many times. It’s the Beatles Anthology recordings that still have some interest for me. I like hearing the songs in their rough form, it’s there that I can see through to the bones of the song to see if it still works. Company of Thieves has done something similar. Their finished recordings have very complex and compelling arrangements; the band gets a very big sound. But they’ve also released videos of acoustic performances of their songs — and not in an ideal studio environment. Instead, they perform out in the world, without a net. Not only can they actually perform the songs from their recordings, they can put them across in the ordinary world — on a beach, riding in a car, on a moving train, at an amusement park and walking down the street in the rain. To me, that makes a connection that a lot of computer-based music has lost.

When I think about the criteria used in my process of discovery, it doesn’t seem like something that could be wrapped up into an algorithm, scaled up and served out to the masses. I want something that I’ve never heard before. It might even be something that I don’t initially like; something that takes a while to grow on me. It might even take a couple of weeks before I decide that I need to buy this music and support the artists. This kind of discovery is pretty rare, and that’s part of what’s good about it. If I could push button and receive a new discovery every day that was custom-built based on the artifacts of my listening behavior, it would soon grow boring. And what could be worse than a cloud-based networked computer program that effectively caused me to become bored with my own taste.

I understand that Company of Thieves is working on some new music. That makes me smile.

Inventing a Place to Perform: Guitar Pulls, Juke Joints and Midnight Rambles

muddy-waters

The first time I heard the phrase it was used to describe something that happened at Johnny Cash’s house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. As the story goes, it was February of 1969, the hour turned late and the party at Cash’s house turned into a guitar pull. Bob Dylan sings “Lay Lady Lay”, Joni Mitchell sings “Both Sides Now”, Graham Nash sings “Marrakesh Express” and Kris Kristofferson sings “Me and Bobby McGee.” There are no recordings of that evening, or none that have surfaced publicly. We only have the stories and memories of the people who pulled out a guitar and put across a song. Oh to be a fly on the wall.

The “guitar pull” is a tradition that comes from country music. Musicians sit around and take turns playing songs. The origin of the phrase has been lost, its first speakers are time out of mind. Some say that it refers to passing a single guitar around, everyone taking their turn. Not everyone owned a guitar, but everyone had a song to sing. People “took a turn” in the sense of pulling the guitar from someone’s hands so they could get their song out.

Musicians playing on a stage for an audience is the dominant configuration for live performance. Occasionally it’s done in the round, but usually music is presented from within a proscenium — musicians on one side and the audience seated in rows on the other. The guitar pull has a different shape. The musicians and the audience aren’t separate, they aren’t even that different. I imagine the shape as roughly circular — a presentation to each other. This is different from musicians sitting around in a recording studio performing for a microphone. No one’s trying to create the definitive version of a song that will go on to sell millions of copies. In a sense, the purpose of the guitar pull is to keep it going. One song brings another out of the group.

A related way of organizing a performance is Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble. The ramble was a rent party in a barn that held about 200 people. Its purpose was to help save Levon’s house from his creditors and rehabilitate his voice after surgery for throat cancer. The audience brought casseroles for a pot luck dinner and music played late into the night. There’s a scene in Scorsese’s movie “The Last Waltz” where Helm tells a story about the origin of the midnight ramble.

“After the finale, they’d have the midnight ramble. The songs would get a little bit juicier. The jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times. A lot of the rock and roll duck walks and moves came from that.”

The shows in the barn in Woodstock weren’t really patterned on the midnight ramble so much as the house parties thrown by blues musicians. On Levon Helm’s website, Kay Cordtz writes about Muddy Waters and his pop-up juke joints.

When Muddy Waters was developing his blues style in the 1930s, he would sometimes play for fans and fellow musicians at his house on the Stovall Plantation, transformed into a juke joint of sorts. They’d move the beds outside so people could dance, sell moonshine and run craps tables out back. Muddy would try out new sounds, make a little money, and everybody would have a ball. People told of finding the place in the dark of the country night by the light of hanging coal oil lamps, and hearing the guitars and people hollering through the trees before you got there.

For musicians like Muddy Waters there was a lot of power in having a venue where he could play the music he wanted for a receptive audience. It’s a kind of control that musicians rarely enjoy. That’s what makes Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble a powerful disruption of the music business. And it’s a place that musicians who’ve scaled the heights of pop-music success always seem to be trying to get back to.

“We had to almost invent a place to perform.”

– Levon Helm

“It felt like the house was calling for musicians to come be a part of it.”

– Amy Helm

There’s a small trend emerging among musicians of trying to invent new places to perform. These new places have their roots in the guitar pulls, pop-up juke joints and midnight rambles. On the west coast, Bob Weir built TRI Studios to provide an intimate space to create and broadcast music. But the most surprising and delightful new space has to be Daryl’s House.

In an interview with Peter Lewis, Daryl Hall describes why he started “Live from Daryl’s House”, his monthly web-based music series.

“Well, for me it was sort of an obvious thing. I’ve been touring my whole adult life really and, you know, you can’t be everywhere. Nor do I want to be every-where at this point. I only like to spend so much time per year on the road. So I thought ‘Why don’t I just do something where anyone who wants to see me any-where in the world can?’
And, instead of doing the artist/audience performance-type thing, I wanted to deconstruct it and make the audience more of a fly-on-the wall kind of observer. You know, I actually like the added intimacy of having no audience in the room with us – just the musicians, myself and the crew hanging out, sitting around talking, rehearsing a song, and then just playing it.”

Daryl Hall has created that fly-on-the-wall view into a guitar pull — that view I wish had into Johnny Cash’s living room in February of 1969. Sure, in Hall’s version the arrangements have been worked out and there’s a little rehearsal. But it’s just enough so that talented musicians can pull it off at a pretty high level. It’s not a rote presentation, you can see the song being discovered as it’s being performed. And like a guitar pull, the music is performed for the musicians. As Hall says, there’s an “added intimacy.” The players don’t look at cameras or out at an audience, instead they look at each other. Daryl Hall has been around long enough to know there’s a different sound created in this kind of environment. It’s a sound that musicians love and one that’s really worth hearing.

Here’s Booker T. Jones on the experience of playing at Daryl’s House.

“One of the nicest things about performing on Live from Daryl’s House is that Daryl has surrounded himself with musicians who can ‘hear’ That is, each one has talent to the extent of being capable of performing as a soloist on his own, not needing to be told the proper notes to sing or play.”

Some believe that the future of popular music is Pandora, Spotify, iRadio and Rdio. These services appear to be cutting edge technology. But the reality of these streaming services is they’ve got a defective business model. They can’t afford to pay the musicians who provide 100% of their content. That means ultimately they’ll be serving up music in its last window of freshness. Once a musician has made as much as she can through every other avenue, then the songs can be sent to the streaming services. It’s the equivalent of waiting until a movie comes out on Netflix. Essentially these services are oldies stations.

The technology used to create “Live from Daryl’s House” seems much more cutting edge to me. Even if that consists of a single omni-directional microphone in the middle of the living room and a cable running down the hallway to a recording set up. Like Muddy Waters, many musicians are starting to invent new places to perform. If you want to know where music and technology is going, check out Daryl’s House.

The Bottom of the Music

janis-grace

Of course television isn’t what it used to be. Nothing is, that’s how it goes with “time” and its “it was”. The number of channels has expanded from three to infinity. With weekly magazines Life, Look, Time, Newsweek no longer consolidate a view for the entire country. There were some very bad things about such a narrow window. A lot of voices couldn’t find a national platform or any platform. But when something strange happened, everyone knew about it.

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There was a very interesting moment in the late 60s and early 70s when rock music started to break through on national television. It started showing up in our living rooms pretty much full strength. Not the pre-fabricated kind, the stuff that was constructed as a simulation of rock — music but without the rebellion, sex and drugs. The simulation had to be revolutionary and at the same time not threaten consumers. They needed to feel hip when they made their next purchase. But this was the real stuff coming through the tube; the stuff that seemed to actually threaten the status quo. It’s hard to imagine a popular music that could do that these days.

Rock music was a mode of communication among the youth culture. Coded messages, visions and entire ways of life were transmitted through short pop songs. The disruption was starting to take hold when the whole thing was shut down. Any number of events could serve as the signal of the backlash, the one that struck me was the firing of the Smother’s Brothers and the cancellation of their television show by CBS in 1969.

Some technologists like to think the torch was passed from the rock generation of the 60s to the computerists of recent days. They point to technology as a force for radical disruption. When we use the word ‘disruption’ to describe a new monopoly taking over for an old monopoly, we really miss the ‘rupture’ in disruption. In the technology business some like to talk about disrupting things and changing the world. But really they’re just talking about market share, revenue and stock price. It’s disruption that doesn’t overturn the apple cart. It just moves some apples from the bottom to the top. The world isn’t really changed at all.

In a television interview with Dick Cavett, Janis Joplin talks about getting to the bottom of the music. It’s the same shock that Elvis generated with his first television appearance. The bottom of the music was suddenly being broadcast directly into the living rooms of middle class families — and without filters into the minds and dreams of the children watching those shows.

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These days those moments are rare. But I had a small shiver of recognition watching Brittany Howard play electric guitar on television the other night. Even if you were to turn the sound off, you could see that she was getting to the bottom of the music. In that image, worlds of possibility were transmitted.

Contra Optimization: 4th Time Around

The whole train of thought started in the most unlikely spot. It’s a bit of a random walk, an attempt at moving in circles to get closer to a destination. I was listening to a podcast called ‘Sound Opinions‘ and Al Kooper was talking about the sessions in Nashville for Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ They didn’t have a tape recorder, so Dylan would teach Kooper the changes and then Kooper would play them over and over again on a piano in Dylan’s hotel room. Dylan worked on the lyrics, Kooper played the changes and gradually, over many hours, the songs took shape.

Kristofferson described the scene: “I saw Dylan sitting out in the studio at the piano, writing all night long by himself. Dark glasses on,” and Bob Johnston recalled to the journalist Louis Black that Dylan did not even get up to go to the bathroom despite consuming so many Cokes, chocolate bars, and other sweets that Johnston began to think the artist was a junkie: “But he wasn’t; he wasn’t hooked on anything but time and space.”

Thinking about that process, I wondered if it would actually have been made better, more efficient, through the use of a tape recorder. Would the same or better songs have emerged from a process where a tape recorder mechanically reproduced the chord sequence as Dylan worked on the lyrics. Presumably, Kooper didn’t play like a robot, creating an identical sonic experience each time through. While Dylan and Kooper’s repetitive process eventually honed in on the song—narrowing the sonic field to things that seem to work—the resonances of the journey appear to be resident in the grooves. From this observation a question emerged: what is learned from a repetition that isn’t a mechanical reproduction, but rather a kind of performance? This kind of repetition seems to have the shape of a inward spiral.

We rush toward optimization and efficiency, those are the activities that increase the yield of value from our commerce engines. The optimal, by definition, means the best. Recently Nasism Taleb exposed the other side of optimization. When there’s a projected relative stability in an environment, as well as stable inputs and outputs for a system, optimization results in a higher, more efficient, production of value. In times of instability, change and uncertainty, optimization produces a brittle infrastructure that must use any excess value it generates to prop itself up in the face of unanticipated change. Unless there’s a reversion to the previous stable state, the system eventually suffers a catastrophic failure. Robustness in uncertain times has to be built from flexibility, agility and a managed portfolio of options. Any strategic analysis might first take note of whether one is living in interesting times or not.

Some paths of thought can’t be fully explored by using optimization techniques. We tend to run quickly toward what Tim Morton calls the “top object” or the “bottom object.” The top object is the most general systematic concept from whence comes everything (“anything you can do, I can do meta“). To create this kind of schema you need to find a place to stand that allows you to draw a circle around everything—except, of course, the spot on which you’re standing. The bottom object is the tiny fundamental bit of stuff—Democritus’s atom—from which all things are constructed. Although physics does seem to be having a tough time getting to the bottom of the bottom object—they keep finding false bottoms, non-local bottoms, anti-bottoms and all kinds of weird goings on. The idea that there may be ‘turtles all the way down’ no longer seems far fetched.

Moving in the opposite direction from a solid top or bottom, we run into Graham Harman’s presentation of Bruno Latour’s concept of irreducibility. Here’s Latour on the germ of the idea:

“I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing now but simply repeated to myself: ‘Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else. This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by one. It was a wintry sky, and a very blue. I no longer needed to prop it up with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head […]. It and me, them and us, we mutually defined ourselves. And for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.”

In his book, Prince of Networks, Harman expands on Latour’s idea. No top object, no bottom object, just a encompassing field of objects that form a series of alliances:

“An entire philosophy is foreshadowed in this anecdote. every human and nonhuman object now stands by itself as a force to reckon with. No actor, however trivial, will be dismissed as mere noise in comparison with its essence, its context, its physical body, or its conditions of possibility. everything will be absolutely concrete; all objects and all modes of dealing with objects will now be on the same footing. In Latour’s new and unreduced cosmos, philosophy and physics both come to grips with forces in the world, but so do generals, surgeons, nannies, writers, chefs, biologists, aeronautical engineers, and seducers.”

The challenge of Latour’s and Harman’s thought is to think about objects without using the tool of reduction. It’s a strange sensation to think things through without automatically rising to the top, or sinking to the bottom.

Taking the principle in a slightly different direction we arrive at Jeff Jonas’s real-time sensemaking systems and a his view of merging and purging data versus an approach he calls entity resolution. Ask any IT worker about any corporate database and they’ll talk about how dirty the data is. It’s filled with errors, bad data, incompatibilities and it seems they can never get the budget to properly clean things up (disambiguation). The batch-based merge and purge system attempts to create a single correct version of the truth in an effort to establish the highest authority. Here’s Jonas:

“Outlier attribute suppression versus context accumulating: As merge purge systems rely on data survivorship processing they drop outlying attributes, for example, the name Marek might sometimes appear as Mark due to data entry error. Merge purge systems would keep Marek and drop Mark. Entity resolution systems keep all values whether they compete or not, as such, these systems accumulate context. By keeping both Marek and Mark, the semantic reconciliation algorithms can benefit by recognizing that sometimes Marek is recorded as Mark.”

Collecting the errors, versions and incompatibilities establishes a rich context for the data. The data isn’t always bright and shiny, looking its clear and unambiguous best—it has more life to it than that. It’s sorta like when you hear someone called by the wrong name, but you know who’s being talked about anyway. Maybe you don’t offer a correction, but simply continue the conversation.

And this brings us back to Al Kooper banging out the changes on a piano in a hotel room, while Dylan sits hunched over a typewriter, pounding out lyrics. Somehow out of this circling through the songs over and over again, the thin wild mercury sound of Blonde on Blonde eventually took hold in the studio and was captured on tape.

Plotting your route as the crow flies is one way to get to a destination. But I have to wonder if crows really do always fly as the crow flies.

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