Saturday
Apr182009

Electronic 'instruments' on the iPhone

Ocarina, from Smule SoftwareHas anyone seen the iPhone application Ocarina?  Or the new Leaf Trombone?  If you haven't, then check them out at the App Store.  These instruments are completely re-imagined musical instruments implemented in software.

The iPhone sports a ton of 'software instruments,' many of which look more to me like emulators.  You have a bevy of musical keyboards, drum machines, samplers, sequencers, guitar fretboards, etc.  Many are difficult to play, either because they aren't fast enough to keep up, or the iPhone itself is a bit hard to hold and play, or the user interface is a bit small to do anything expansive with.

But a few developers are starting to think of the iPhone as a wholly unique instrument.  For example, two Theremins (here and here) have been created, each with interesting input methods).  And software developer Smule.com is innovating their way into e-music fame with their two imaginings.

That Ocarina!  I saw someone playing it and knew I had to buy it right then and there.  Basically you hold the iPhone, mic near your mouth, parallel to the ground (screen up).  You put your hands under it, and place two fingers on each hand on either side, next to the large 'holes' that light up on the screen.  Then, you blow on the mic (they even have a little triangle pointing to where it is, near the right hand side of the dock connector).  You basically play songs like the iPhone is a recorder.  And you can share or listen to Ocarina pieces on the phone from people all over the world.  What a cool app!

The Leaf TromboneThe newest instrument from Smule.com is called the Leaf Trombone.  It uses a little input icon attached to a leaf, and when you move your finger from the bottom to the top of the iPhone, it slides the notes in a glissando fashion.  It's ultra-cool and a lot of fun.  They have a little music box that can spout out places to move your finger so you can learn how to play songs, too.  Of course, the same social media applies, so you can share your music and location with others around the globe. 

These apps got me thinking about putting together an iPhone e-music ensemble.  Even writing a few custom-built instruments, once iPhone SDK 3.0 comes out.  I'm thinking the dock connector API, which would allow you to read information from external devices such as touch sensors, microphones, etc., might open this up further.  It would be awesome to add these input concepts Smule.com imagined to a real software synth, so you could make a wide variety of tones and possibly transform the iPhone into a portable e-music studio.

Of course, it'd be even more awesome if you could somehow package an instrument around Princeton Sound Kitchen's ChucK, so you could truly take e-compositions with you!  

Monday
Mar302009

My Brightest Diamond - wow!

I must have been sleeping under a rock, or maybe it was the fact that my Radiohead obsessed brain was stuck in the 'on' position. Whatever the case, I picked up The Decemberists' latest, The Hazards of Love, which I think is both ridiculous and fantastic at the same time. What an amazing album. If you're curious, head over to Sound Opinions and listen to show #173. (their review here)

A side note, if you loved the album, check out the SXSW recording of the entire event from NPR All Songs Considered's concert podcast. They pulled the whole thing off live, and it was an amazing performance. I hope somebody recorded the full video. Heck, they have some great concerts on that podcast stream.

So, I was digging through the guest list, and saw they used two female singers, Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond plays the Queen, and Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond (nice interview here) plays Margaret. Both amazing singers, Becky sings gently and has an amazing soprano voice. I really found Shara's music to be very engaging; she is so unique and the compositions are really fascinating. Here is a taste:

Another song, the opener from the current album:

I picked up her 2008 album A Thousand Shark's Teeth and have to say it's one of the most original things out there. She's classically trained, was composing from a very young age, and is just expressive, lyrically and musically. I have a feeling the Decemberists will give her and Stark a breakout. I hope she keeps it up.

Friday
Mar272009

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

Listening to Andy Hunt (co founder of the Pragmatic Bookshelf, author of Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, etc) at our keynote today got me thinking.  He had mentioned Clark Terry's quote "Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate" as part of the journey of going from beginner to mastery in a subject.

Ten years, roughly 10,000 hours of practice, I think was mentioned, is how long it takes to become an 'expert' in a field.  That makes sense to me.  I know I've been playing Jazz on and off now since I was in my late 20's (after progressive rock and fusion died in my head) and I can tell you I first attempted to play jazz analytically.  That failed miserably.

I was talking to my friend Roberto from work; we were discussing a piece he was interested in, and I had downloaded it.  It had a fast samba/straight 16ths feel to it, and I thought "man, that one is gonna be tough".  But after listening to my voice, I centered on the music, and felt the pulse.  I was getting myself to use the 'R-mode' or intuitive side of my brain, to start feeling the music, not analyzing it.  This switching modes from analytical to intuitive, from rational to emotional, was something we heard from Andy today, and it struck a chord.

As I get older, I realize the importance of finishing work you're working on less you have to switch to do something else.  When I was younger, I could switch between tasks almost instantly.  I guess with the advent of middle age, my mind can't do that as well.  But I do know how to get myself into a groove and get things done.  It's funny, really, that the same techniques I learned when I was 15, sitting with my drum teacher, still work today.  "If you think, you sink" was his line to me.  

If you think, you sink.  Huh.  What he was saying was, "don't analyze, FEEL."  And I think that's a problem with our society as a whole.  We've been taught, as Andy says, to be high-power analytical machines.  Crank out complex solution after complex solution.  Get 'er done.  So to speak.

It's not like that when I'm drumming.  I think I sort of cracked Andy up in the interview (coming in a few days), mentioning how, when I'm really letting my analytical thoughts go on the drum set, I'm almost making guttural noises.  He's a musician too (as you'll hear in the interview).  For what it's worth, other musicians do it.  I've heard it on a Chick Corea album (the first Acoustic band album, first cut).  Keith Jarrett does this on his music.  I've heard it in Art Blakey (listen to Caravan, on the album of the same name).  I play drums with my eyes closed in some cases, so that I can remove the distractions that might force me to focus and snap back to reality.  

I wanted to share something someone in the band sent me a while back, and everyone at work has it on their desks.  It's Monk's Rules for Musicians.  Hilarious reading, if you've ever played any jazz before, it has much truth.  Statements like "The inside of the tune (the bridge) is what makes the outside sound good", and "a note can be as small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination".  Most of these things aren't technique.  They are little lessons on expressing yourself, and not becoming a wooden soldier.  I think for me, they tell me that you can come to Jazz from very different angles, and if you start with technique, you are in for a world of pain.

The good news here is that you don't have to start from technique.  The best rule is "don't play everything (or everytime), some music [is] just imagined".  YES.  If you listen to Miles Davis play solos, he often hangs back, throws a note out for a while to set a mood, uses what he needs to get the job done.  But he doesn't necessarily hot-dog.  Sure, Coltrane was an amazing sax player, but he played for many years before his work with Miles on Kind of Blue, or Giant Steps, or My Favorite Things.  There was a great interview series I recently found on iTunes (John Coltrane, "An Interview With"), and in the interview he mentions that he used to play horn with a friend, blowing tunes listening to records, imitating his heroes.

See, we all do that.  Andy mentioned visualization as a powerful way to practice.  He was visualizing what he wanted to sound like, attempted to make that sound, and could succeed, ultimately, and ended up creating his own way of approaching his instrument.

My wish for anyone reading this is to remember one thing: no matter how much skill you have as a musician, technologist, etc., remember that you can approach problem solving in many ways, and each one helps you peel those layers to reach truth.  In drumming, I may not play like Elvin Jones, Dave Weckl, Art Blakey, or anyone of that stature.  But I will find a path to saying what I want to say.  I hope you do the same.

Wednesday
Mar112009

My favorite Jazz albums

I've been thinking about this ever since I started my current band.  I'm going to post my favorites here, and hopefully some of you (any of you) will respond in kind.  Here it goes...

  • John Coltrane, Afro Blue (I believe Afro Blue Impressions) - I had a cassette tape of this album and I forget even where I got it from, but it was my first taste of Jazz.  McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums.  My drum teacher at the time, Martin Bradfield, told me about Elvin and it was like magic finding this.
  • Miles Davis, Kind of Blue - believe it or not, I came to this very late, when I was in my late twenties or early thirties.  I went on a jazz-only bender when I finally joined my first group, and this was one of those moments where I changed the way I approached music.  Suddenly it was about the theme, the head, which before was just a way to get to the solos, became important to me.  I started listening to horn players like crazy...
  • Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Caravan - This is such a strong album.  Art Blakey was a powerful and expressive drummer, and was more about raw energy and emotion, keeping them in check but letting them burst free every so often, than technique.  His horn section, which I believe included Wayne Shorter, just blows like crazy on this album.  Sweet 'n Sour is one of my favorites.
  • Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard - what in God's Green Earth are they playing here?  Actually, they de-construct jazz and tear it apart, throwing fragments across the stage to each other constantly (Solar, one of my favorites, is magical - it barely states the head, and is so sparse in sections that you almost can't follow it).  Now that I play a variety of tunes, it isn't so hard to analyze, but back when I first heard it, I just laughed with amazement.  Wow.
  • Chick Corea - Piano Improvisations, Volume 2 - A beautiful and lush album of jazz standards and originals.  Trinkle Trinkle (a Monk Tune) is fantastic here.
  • Horace Silver, Song for My Father - A true classic.  Wonderful latin / cuban influenced jazz, expressive as hell.  Besides the title track, give Calcutta Cutie a listen.  The shuffle beat and finger cymbals really add a neat texture to it.
  • Wayne Shorter, Footprints (Adam's Apple) - I play this with a latin three, rather than swinging it, but I love the way it is played here.  A classic.  

That's it for now, the best brain dump I can do...  What is on your Jazz top shelf?

 

 

Wednesday
Mar112009

What's going to be here?

I'm an incurable drummer.  Tap on everything.  Tap, tap, tap.  brrr brrr brrr.  etc.

I also listen to a lot of music, although I get stuck in ruts (sometimes those are good things).  

So, this will be a place I can blog about my musical interest.  Either you're with me, or you can disagree with me.  Please do, it'll make it more fun.

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