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Where to Stand: Some Notes on Liner Notes

bob-dylan-desire

We seem to have lost the liner notes. On some labels and for some artists the liner note provided a context or key to the music contained within. Reading song lyrics while listening to an album for the first time was an important ritual. Before the counter-culture was totally absorbed into mass culture, the photographs on the album were a window into a new form of life. An album required decoding and the casing provided some of the clues.

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For those too young to remember, the liner note was an essay, photographs, lyrics, credits, etc., usually printed on the inner sleeve of a vinyl record album. The sleeve that held the vinyl platter was called a record liner, sometimes referred to as a dust jacket. When commercially recorded music became digital bits there was no need for a dust jacket and thus no where to print the liner notes. The material relationship of the liner note to the physical media that holds the encoded music can’t be replaced with hyperlinks.

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The record album created the perfect canvas for the liner note. Its size was more like an art book, plenty of room for the interplay of text and image. The compact disc shrunk everything down to an unreadable size. Text is still printed on compact disc packages, but only as a matter of form. It’s like those credits that roll by at hyper speed at the end of a television show. You know they say something, but they’re not really meant to be read.

Allen Ginsberg writing about Bob Dylan’s album “Desire” is my strongest memory from the heyday of liner notes. Listening to the music through Ginsberg’s lens connected it to a long line of poetry and song. Long afternoons lying next to the stereo, reading and discussing the notes, listening to the tunes, parsing the lyrics until they were burned into memory.

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Recently I’ve had a similar experience with poetry and podcasts. While footnotes to the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton don’t always give me the same charge — listening to close readings of the poetry is like getting a great set of liner notes. Here are a few that I’ve listened to more than once:

• On Wordsworth
On Wordsworth
Professor Timothy Morton
Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English Literature
Rice University

• On Milton and Wordsworth
On Milton and Wordsworth
Professor William Flesch
Brandeis University

If liner notes were to make some kind of comeback, I think they might look more like what Anil Prasad does with his web site Innerviews. His interviews with musicians are completely different than anything you’ll find in the commercial music press. His writing opens up both the players and the music. When I first discovered it I realized that I’d missed years of great interviews. I spent days going from Bill Bruford to Allan Holdsworth to Zoe Keating to Laurie Anderson, and then to Marc Ribot and Joan Jeanrenaud. I have to be very careful about visiting Innerviews. I start reading and when I look up, several hours have passed and I wonder if I can squeeze in just one more interview.

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Another possibility for liner notes is the video note. Here, soprano Joyce DiDonato talks about singing an aria from Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.” This is a warm up for a concert, but it would be a welcome addition to a recording.

The video liner note that kicked off this whole train of thought was the DVD that accompanies Jeremy Denk’s new recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Denk is both a writer and a musician, and is particularly adept at taking you inside the music and the experience of playing it. Listening to Denk talk about what he’s playing is much like listening to Timothy Morton read and interpret Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc.” You go back to the work with new eyes and the aesthetic object unfolding in front of you bristles with new possibilities.

The liner note was physically linked to the media it described. You’d think in an age where the hyperlink has become so dominant that liner notes would proliferate. But like a restaurant with hundreds of online reviews, you have trouble knowing where to turn. You need a review of the reviewers to even get started. Here the economy of abundance is a detriment, it’s the limitations that force the liner note to be something special.

A last liner note, this one also by Jeremy Denk. I’d always had trouble hearing Gyorgy Ligeti’s piano etudes. Somehow my ears weren’t quite ready. A work of art asks you to attune to it in a certain way. To see perspective in a classical painting, you need to stand in a certain spot with respect to the canvas. Listening to music is much the same. Sometimes it’s the liner note that tells you where to stand.

Discovering a Company of Thieves

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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.

Podcasting is Broken

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There was a moment in podcasting, before iTunes became its index, that a whole bunch of people saw the promise of the medium and set out to make it work for the masses. Odeo, the company that failed at podcasting, but succeeded at creating Twitter, was one of the many that entered the field. When iTunes added podcasting to its index, it killed a whole crop of new companies. Something about podcasting had been solved.

podcast-subscribe

Since that time, podcasting remains broken for mass audiences. It turns out that Apple’s index did nothing to fix the fundamental brokenness. Most people don’t know how to subscribe to a podcast and sync it to a mobile device. They don’t know how to get the next episode. On the podcast production side the reverse has happened. Practically everyone now knows how to create a podcast. The number of podcasts available through iTunes is staggering.

dawn_and_drew

Podcasting started as an outsider medium, but quickly podcasting networks were created. These were generally pushed by former mainstream media figures hoping to create their own empires outside of the established media empires. It felt a little like the wild west. And then public radio, the BBC, television news and subscription cable channels discovered podcasting as delayed distribution window for their programming. Podcasting now included video and its value as a second-order distribution window increased again. Suddenly the lists of top podcasts didn’t contain names like Dawn and Drew, but were filled with shows from NPR and HBO. Stand-up comics were the next to discover the medium and now almost every comic either has a podcast or is a regular guest on a podcast.

The original podcasts focused on technology, initially on the technology of podcasting itself. There are still a number of programs that focus on technology, but the speed of blog-based tech reporting has undercut much of their value. They’re now a small niche in the podcasting universe. Apple recently reported that since the summer of 2005 they’ve processed one billion podcast subscriptions. Even with all those subscriptions, podcasting is still broken.

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An individual podcast has a freshness date; after a certain amount of time passes its value decreases dramatically. Unlike a music file, once you’ve listened to a podcast you don’t need it any more — just as you wouldn’t generally watch a news broadcast more than once. I subscribe to about 20 podcasts, but only listen to 5 or 6 regularly. With the rest, I pick my spots. In my daily routine the podcast has taken the place of broadcast radio. I listen in the car, and play the shows I want to hear in the only window I have to listen to that kind of programming. My car radio receives a signal from my mobile device (iPhone) and plays over the car’s speakers. Generally the file resides on the memory of the device, occasionally the file is streamed over a cellular network.

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The brokenness of podcasting at first seems like a big opportunity. Apple’s iTunes still has the biggest index of programming, but that doesn’t make anything seem less broken. Take a look at the reviews for podcatchers, the apps used to listen to podcasts to get a sense of how broken most people think things are. One ongoing issue with podcasting has been the lack of hyperlinking in audio files. Reciting URLs with offer codes just isn’t the same as saying “click here”. Podcasts must have an accompanying show page to post links mentioned in the podcast. It’s possible that may be about to change. Apple once again steps in. They’ve filed a patent application for Audio Hyperlinking in Podcasts, Television and more. Here are the details as reported by Patently Apple:

By encoding audio hyperlinks into audio streams, audio streams can take advantage of the ability to link between resources currently available in web browsers and other text-based systems. A system employing audio hyperlinks can allow users to jump between the audio stream and other resources.

As with hypertext systems, an audio hyperlinking system employs hyperlink information encoded into the audio stream that can be used by an electronic device to identify, access, and perform linked resources.

In one embodiment, a button, such as a button on a headset normally used for accepting a call, may be double-clicked to indicate that a hyperlink should be traversed, and triple-clicked (or single clicked) to indicate a return to the original audio stream.

In another embodiment, activation of the call accept button may be combined with activation of the volume increase button to cause the hyperlink to be traversed, and activation of the call accept button combined with activation of the volume decrease button to cause the traversal to be halted and to resume the playback of the original audio stream.

In some embodiments, the hyperlink indicator may be an audio tone or sequence of tones that are audible to a listener of the audio stream. In other embodiments, the hyperlink indicator may be an audio tone or sequence of tones that is inaudible to a human listener, such as a tone at a frequency that is outside of the normal hearing range of 20 Hz-20 KHz, but which may be detected and recognized by the electronic device playing the audio stream, causing an effect in a user interface.

The audio hyperlink may change the economics of the podcasting business. In particular, the “inaudible” audio link has some interesting possibilities. But it won’t solve the index and subscription issues. Podcast listening could definitely be easier for the audience. Sync-ing could be removed from picture if there were lower cellular data costs and an all streaming model. However the primary issue remains that there are a million channels on the podcast station selector and most people can’t even find it.

jesse-thorn

The more I thought about the brokenness of podcasting, the more I realized that I hoped it remained broken. The more podcasting starts to look and work like mainstream broadcasting, the less interesting it will become. It’s in the shards of a broken process that interesting new voices emerge. Outsiders still have a chance to be heard. When podcasting is “fixed” it’ll be by one of the Stacks and then they’ll own and define it. It’ll be expected to turn a profit.

Podcasting is broken in an exquisite sort of way. It’s broken in a way that we’ll miss when it’s gone — the way some morn the old days of the web. In an era of solutionism, we lack the capacity to see something that’s broken in a good way.

Engelbart’s Frozen Vision

Early-Computer

The passing of Doug Engelbart brings to mind John Markoff’s book “What the Dormouse Said.” The subtitle of the book is “How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.” Engelbart was at the center of envisioning what networked personal computers could be. To some extent, we’ve just been coloring in the pictures that Engelbart drew toward the end of 1968.

The date of Engelbart’s death also marks the beginning of the end of the connection between LSD and the technology of personal computing. Engelbart was one of the early experimenters. And while you couldn’t say that his experimentation lead to his visions for technology, you can certainly say that nothing like that would happen today. Interest in our interior space may be at an all-time low. It simply lacks a decent return on investment.

The big demo set the boundaries of the vision, and the commercial technologists have spent the intervening years building it out. If the future wasn’t evenly distributed, it was the job of the personal computing industry to make sure that there was a networked personal computing device for every man woman and child in the country — and every other country too. That “future” is pretty evenly distributed now.

In the early days of the commercialized Network, we used to shake our heads at this company or that government agency and say: “they just don’t get the Internet.” At this point, I’d say that everyone “gets” the Internet and connected computing. Of course, no one gets the Internet in toto, but everyone gets enough of it. And despite the recent laments over the loss of the early spirit of the Network, like the man says: “the street finds its own uses for things.”

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There hasn’t been much new vision since the days of ARC, PARC and PLATO. Philip K. Dick saw the dark side which shows up in our movies. Jaron Lanier’s ideas about virtual reality are migrating into the games we play in our living rooms. David Gelernter’s LifeStreams are turning in the various Tweet Streams, Facebook newsfeeds and photostreams. The techno-primativism of Burning Man somehow never really makes it out of the desert. What happens at Burning Man, stays at Burning Man. The engineers at Google admit to trying to make working versions of the computing technology simulated in the original Star Trek television show. And through the inflation of the series of tech bubbles, “technology” was transformed into what venture capitalists were willing to fund. By that definition, even Engelbart wasn’t able to secure funding to continue his work. The vision was frozen in time. What we have now are the Stacks — which is the total commercial exploitation of Engelbart’s original interrupted vision in the form of feudal central clouds.

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Vision has an interesting relationship with technology. It’s vaporware if you don’t build it. Its success is marginal if it doesn’t work its way into the fabric of our lives. But vision is less about the technology we’re building, and more about how we might do things. For instance, when we think about Ted Nelson’s vision for the Network, we see the road not taken. Engelbart’s road was taken, and taken from him. The regret that Engelbart had was that his vision was never allowed to evolve and grow. He never saw the “mother of all demos” as the end of the road. The commercial demands around evenly distributing that particular future put an end to all alternate paths, even the ones Engelbart continued to imagine.

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Once the vision becomes frozen, we are transformed from participants to consumers. Even the kind of “participation” that makes up the content of social media is largely a form of consumption. And “consumerism” as Timothy Morton likes to point out, is an invention of the romantic era. Recently, I was reading a collection of essays edited by Harold Bloom on Romanticism and Consciousness. I was struck by his description of a piece by Owen Barfield.

…A brief but profound chapter which I have excerpted from Owen Barfield’s “Saving the Appearances, a Study in Idolatry”. Barfield is a historian of human consciousness, who, in this remarkable book, traces and deplores our loss of “participation,” the awareness “of an extra-sensory link between the percipient and the representations.” The progressive loss of the sense of participation, over the centuries, results in an idolatry of memory images. In Barfield’s view, Romanticism arose as an iconoclastic movement, seeking to smash the idols and return men to an original participation in phenomena.

It seems that we’ve colored in all the pictures that Doug Engelbart left us. We’ve colored them in HD and 3D and in real-time streaming. It may be time to smash the idols and try to come up with a new set of pictures.

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