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kottke.org posts about music

Creating the Soundtrack for a Pinball Machine

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2023

This is a delightfully early-80s clip about how electronic music legend Suzanne Ciani created the soundtrack and sound effects for the Xenon pinball game. Xenon was the first talking Bally pinball game and the first pinball game voiced by a woman.

The idea of using the short grunts and groans came to me when I watched people playing the game — the way that people expressed their frustrations or their involvement with the game — and I wanted the game to do that back. I wanted it to talk back to the people playing.

Here are two other videos from the 80s of her explaining her work: on PBS’s 3-2-1 Contact (I *loved* that show) and on The David Letterman Show. According to her Wikipedia page, Ciani created the Coca-Cola “Pop ‘n Pour” sound logo as well as other sound logos for Energizer and ABC.

In 2013, Ciani was inducted into the Pinball Expo Hall of Fame for her pioneering work on the game. (thx, caroline)

The White Noise End-Credits Grocery Store Dance Scene

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2023

I am not entirely sure I liked Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (nor am I sure I disliked it), but I’m 100% positive that the grocery store dance scene that plays while the end credits roll was my favorite part of the film. The scene is set to a new LCD Soundsystem track called new body rhumba and Netflix has uploaded the whole thing to YouTube so you can enjoy it whenever you would like. Also, André 3000 with the cookie box!

Daft Punk Live Set from 1997

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2022

This is video of a live show by Daft Punk recorded at LA’s Mayan Theater on December 17, 1997; they’re playing mostly tracks off of Homework, which was released earlier that year. Note that this was before they started wearing the robot outfits for all of their appearances, so it’s just two normal humans DJing. Here’s the setlist. Ohhh to have been there for this.

See also Daft Punk Live DJ Sets from the 90s. (via flowstate)

A Tour of Legendary Club CBGBs by Photographer David Godlis

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 19, 2022

A short animated film about photographer David Godlis, who documented the glory days of CBGB, ground zero for the punk & new wave scene in the late 1970s.

Between 1976 and 1980, young Manhattan photographer David Godlis documented the nightly goings-on at the Bowery’s legendary CBGB, “the undisputed birthplace of punk rock,” with a vividly distinctive style of night photography.

You can check out some of Godlis’s photos on his website. (via open culture)

How Jamiroquai Shot Their Iconic Virtual Insanity Video

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2022

Some 26 years after the release of the group’s groundbreaking music video for Virtual Insanity, Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay explains how the band and director Jonathan Glazer achieved such a convincing moving floor effect. The trick to getting the video made on a budget was to channel Einstein a bit in remembering that motion is relative to your frame of reference.

See also the hilarious musicless version created by Mario Wienerroither. Squeeeeeeeak. (via a whole lotta nothing)

A Short History of the Banjo and Early Black Folk Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2022

In this video from Vox (produced by none other than Estelle Caswell, who does the excellent Earworm series), scholar and musician Jake Blount runs us through a quick history of early Black folk music, using the banjo as a rough through-line. If you’d like to read more about Black stringband music, Blount has compiled some recommended resources.

The Top Gun “Mach 10” Scene Is Like a Perfect Pop Song

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 08, 2022

As I said in my recent media diet post, I really enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick. It’s a movie that’s made to be seen on a big screen with a loud sound system — I ended up seeing it in the theater twice. The movie just felt…good. Like a really well-crafted pop tune. In this video, Evan Puschak takes a look at the first scene in the film where (spoilers!) test pilot Maverick needs to achieve Mach 10 in an experimental plane and compares it to the structure of a pop song. His comparison really resonated with me because I listen to music and watch movies (particularly action movies) in a similar way: how movies and music feel and how they make me feel is often more important than plot or dialogue or lyrics.

The Vanity Fair Interview with Billie Eilish, Year Six

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2022

Every year since she was 15, Billie Eilish has sat down for a video interview with Vanity Fair to take stock of where she’s at in life, how her career is going, and how the present compares to the past. The sixth installment has just been released (and will be the last annual release for awhile).

These are always so fun to watch — and what an amazing bit of luck on Vanity Fair’s part that they picked a very young pop star at the beginning of her career who would go on to win an Oscar some five years later. (via waxy)

Delia Derbyshire Demonstrates How Electronic Music Was Made at BBC Radiophonic Workshop

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2022

In this video from 1965, electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the original theme music for Doctor Who, demonstrates how electronic music was made at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It’s such a treat watching her construct songs from electronic sound generators and sampled sounds played at different speeds and pitches; you can even see her layering sounds on different tape machines and beat matching, just like DJs would years later.

Amazingly, you can try your hand at layering and looping this music yourself with this Tape Loops demo from the BBC. You can also make Dalek and Cybermen noises with the Ring Modulator, create Gunfire Effects, or use the Wobbulator (my favorite).

See also The Definitive Guide to Doctor Who Theme Music, the trailer for Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes, and this incredible proto-techno track Derbyshire made in the 60s. (via @austinkleon)

The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 25, 2022

For his forthcoming book Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars, journalist Nick Duerden interviewed pop stars who had made it big about what happened after the bright spotlight of fame moved on. Here are a few interesting bits from an adapted excerpt in The Guardian:

“The pain I feel from the Slits ending is worse than splitting up with a boyfriend,” Albertine wrote, “This feels like the death of a huge part of myself, two whole thirds gone … I’ve got nowhere to go, nothing to do; I’m cast back into the world like a sycamore seed spinning into the wind.”

So what’s it like, I wondered, to still be doing this “job” at 35, and 52, and beyond? What’s it like to have released your debut album to a global roar, and your 12th to barely a whisper? Why the continued compulsion to create at all, to demand yet more adulation? Frankly, what’s the point?

[Suzanne] Vega’s tour, haemorrhaging money, was cut short. When she arrived back at JFK, she looked out for the car her record label would always send to collect her. But there was no car. Not any more. “I took a taxi,” she says.

When Tanya Donelly, of 90s US indie darlings Belly, quit after winning a Grammy (and promptly suffering burnout), she craved normal work and became a doula. When 10,000 Maniacs’ Natalie Merchant grew tired of being a marketable commodity, she quit for the quieter life of a solo artist, and was then duly horrified when her debut album, 1995’s Tigerlily, sold 5m copies, because “then came the treadmill again”. The next time she tried to retire, she did so more forcefully, and now teaches arts and crafts to underprivileged children in New York state. “I look at people like Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney,” she says, referring to the way both legends continue to tour, “and I think to myself: ‘If I were you, I’d just go home and enjoy my garden.’ It’s a question of temperament, clearly.”

The Unskippable Opening Credits for Severance

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 30, 2022

After hearing a buzz from my social circle about Severance on Apple+, I’ve been catching up on it for the past couple of weeks. Here’s the series synopsis:

Mark leads a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives. When a mysterious colleague appears outside of work, it begins a journey to discover the truth about their jobs.

I’m going to reserve judgment on the show for my next media diet post, but let’s talk about the opening credits sequence by Oliver Latta. It’s fantastic, an instant addition to the Unskippable Intros Hall of Fame. Mashable talked to Latta about his process and you can see a few behind the scenes images at Behance. And check out Latta’s other animations…you can definitely see where some of the imagery in the title sequence came from.

Now, back to the Unskippable Intros Hall of Fame. For me, the opening title sequences that I never ever push the “skip intro” button on are Succession (that music!), Stranger Things (again, that music!), Halt and Catch Fire, The Wire, The Simpsons (gotta catch that couch gag), Transparent, Six Feet Under, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, and The Muppet Show. What would you add to the mix?

Update: Composers of TV themes lament the rise of the “skip intro” button.

Yet there’s one thing that annoys softly spoken Britell: the “Skip intro” facility on streaming services, which was brought in five years ago and lets viewers bypass a show’s opening credits. “I am very against it,” says Britell. “TV theme music is incredibly important. It’s almost a show’s DNA identifier. It serves as an overture to bring you in and sets the tone. I think that formal entrée is crucial.”

Robust words from the man whose Emmy-winning, earwormy Succession work, with its gothic strings, cascading piano and skittering beats, is helping to revive TV theme tunes.

Brilliant Slowed Down 80s Pop Hits by Alvin & the Chipmunks

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2022

This is an oldie but a goodie: Brian Borcherdt took an album of 80s covers sung by Alvin & the Chipmunks (Walk Like an Egyptian, My Sharona, Always On My Mind) and played them at 16 RPM on a record player. The effect “revealed what was secretly the most important postpunk/goth album ever recorded”.

Every time I hear the version of “You Keep Me Hanging On” on this video I just collapse laughing because it sounds exactly like what would happen if The Afghan Whigs were given the sound of Peter Gabriel’s 1982 SECURITY. That opening! That’s f**king “San Jacinto” right there!

See also the same treatment given to a 1998 album of Chipmunks dance mixes.

Mesmerizing Ice Crystal Formations

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2022

For his music video for Sébastien Guérive’s Bellatrix, Thomas Blanchard filmed ice crystals forming at close range and ultra-high resolution.

Bellatrix Sébastien Guérive music video is an experimental film on the crystallization of ice stars. It is a chemical saturation in hot water which is then cooled. The chemical saturation becomes very unstable when the liquid cools. The slightest disturbance in the liquid activates crystallization.

I spent hours and hours as a kid watching snowflakes accumulate on windowsills, raindrops rolling down windows, clouds rolling in from the west, and frost advance on surfaces, looking for patterns in the seeming randomness, so this is right up my alley. (via colossal)

Did Dua Lipa Plagiarize Levitating?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2022

One of the biggest hits of the past two years has been Dua Lipa’s Levitating — this catchy disco-inflected tune didn’t hit #1 in the US but has set quite a few records for Billboard chart longevity (e.g. 41 weeks in the top 10). Lipa, her label, and her co-writers were recently hit with a lawsuit 1
by a band called Artikal Sound System alleging that Levitating was ripped off from their song, Live Your Life. At first glance, Artikal Sound System seems to have a point — take a listen to Levitating and then to Live Your Life.

But! As Adam Neely explains in this video, if you listen to it with an expert ear and with the history of music in mind, their case doesn’t seem so ironclad. For starters, Rosa Parks by Outkast (1998) and Blame It on the Boogie from The Jacksons (1978) contain very similar rhythms.

  1. And just today brings news of a second lawsuit: “songwriters L. Russell Brown and Sandy Linzer allege that Lipa ‘duplicate[d]’ the ‘signature’ opening melody for ‘Levitating’ from their 1979 song ‘Wiggle and a Giggle All Night’ and 1980 song ‘Don Diablo’, performed by Cory Daye and Miguel Bosé respectively.”

US Beatles Albums Weren’t the Same As UK Beatles Albums

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2022

Throughout the relatively short recording career of The Beatles, and as late as 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour, the band’s albums released in the United States were, in some cases, quite different than those released in the UK. Jared Pike explains the differences in this comprehensive video:

Pike also made a chart of all the releases and which albums they appeared on, which you can download here. The image is too tall to include here, but here’s an excerpt that shows some of the reorganization that was done for American audiences:

a portion of a chart that compares the track listings of UK Beatles albums vs US Beatles albums

I just looked on Spotify here in America and they’re using the UK versions of the albums (at least for Rubber Soul and Revolver). I wonder how long that’s been the case? According to Wikipedia, it looks like when the band’s albums were reissued on CD in 1987, the track listings were standardized to the UK/international release.

Jonny Greenwood Pretended to Play the Keyboard When He First Joined Radiohead

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2022

This is the kookiest thing I have heard all week: Jonny Greenwood didn’t know how to play keyboard when he first joined Radiohead (when the band was still called On a Friday). Here’s what he told Terry Gross on a recent episode of Fresh Air:

Well, they had a keyboard player who — Thom’s band had a keyboard player, which I think they didn’t get on with because he played his keyboard so loud. And so when I got the chance to play with them, the first thing I did was make sure my keyboard was turned off when I was playing. And I must have done months of rehearsals with them with this keyboard that was just — they didn’t know that I’d already turned it off and was just — they made quite a racket, quite a noise. It was all guitars and distortion.

And so I would pretend to play for weeks on end. And Thom would say, I can’t quite hear what you’re doing. But I think you’re adding a really interesting texture because I can tell when you’re not playing. And I’m thinking, no, you can’t, because I’m really not playing. And I’d go home in the evening and work out how to actually play chords. And cautiously, over the next few months, I would start turning this keyboard up. And that’s how I started — you know, started in with Radiohead.

To be fair, Greenwood knew how to play music (the recorder and viola for a start), he just didn’t know how to play the keyboard. Fake it til you make it, I guess!

“OK Computer but Everything Is My Voice”

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2022

YouTuber shonkywonkydonkey takes songs and reworks them using only his voice — all the original instruments, vocals, sound effects, etc. are replaced by his vocals. The results are waaay better than you would expect. His magnum opus is probably the entire album of Radiohead’s OK Computer (yes, all 53 minutes, 26 seconds of it):

I am also partial to Everything In Its Right Place:

Hard to Explain by The Strokes is great too:

You can check out the rest of his efforts here. (via @aaroncoleman0)

The Seinfeld Theme Mixed With A Hit Song From Every Year Seinfeld Was On TV

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 03, 2022

Seinfeld2000 and kottke.org favorites The Hood Internet teamed up to make this video of the Seinfeld theme song mixed with a song from every year the show was on the air. So: Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty, Poison by Bell Biv DeVoe, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, Bulls on Parade by Rage Against the Machine, and Around the World by Daft Punk. Genius. I could not love this anymore than I do.

See also Darth Costanza and How the Seinfeld Theme Song Was Made. (via waxy)

Nadia Boulanger, the Most Influential Music Teacher of the 20th Century

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2022

At one point or another, legendary music teacher Nadia Boulanger taught Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, and many many more. In the video above, Oscar Osicki of Inside the Score tells us about this remarkable woman and how she came to be “arguably the most renowned music teacher in the world”.

Later in his life, Aaron Copeland wrote to Boulanger about the influence she’d had on him:

It’s almost 30 years (hard to believe) since we met — and I still count our meeting the most important event of my musical life. What you did for me — at exactly the period I most needed it — is unforgettable. Whatever I have accomplished is intimately associated in my mind with those early years and with what you have since been as inspiration and example. All my gratitude and thanks go to you, dear Nadia.

Quincy Jones:

Nadia Boulanger used to tell me all the time, “Quincy, your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.” It’s okay to play fast and all that other stuff, but unless you have a life experience, and have something to say that you’ve lived, you have nothing to contribute at all. So I decided to live my life, and I did.

See also The greatest music teacher who ever lived and She Was Music’s Greatest Teacher. And Much More. (via open culture)

My Recent Media Diet, the Belated End of 2021 Edition

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 18, 2022

“Recent” is increasingly becoming a lie with these media diet posts…the last one I did was back on Sept 13, right before my life went to hell in a handcart for a couple of months.1 So let’s get to it: a list of short reviews of all the movies, books, music, TV shows, podcasts, and other things I’ve enjoyed (or not) in the last few months of 2021 (as well as a few 2022 items). As usual, don’t pay too much attention to the letter grades — they are subjective and inconsistent. Oh and some of this stuff might have already popped up in my end-of-2021 review, but I’ll try and say something different about them here.

The Great British Baking Show. I already covered this in the last media diet (and the year-end review), but I wanted to include it here as well because it’s become a real favorite. Rahul 4eva! (A)

Project Hail Mary. After my whole family read this and couldn’t stop talking about it, I had to read it too. And……it was alright. I guess I don’t quite get the acclaim for this book — reminded me of a sci-fi Da Vinci Code. Looking forward to the movie being better. (B)

The French Dispatch. Maybe my favorite Wes Anderson movie since The Royal Tenenbaums? (A)

The Hunger Games. I watched all four movies in this series because I needed something familiar and also mindless to switch my brain off. (B+)

Ted Lasso (season two). Not quite as good as the first season and definitely not as beloved because they had some new ground to cover, but I enjoyed the season as a whole. And put me down as a fan of the Coach Beard Rumspringa episode. (A-)

Izakaya Minato. I don’t exactly know what it was about this meal, but I’m still thinking about it more than 3 months later. Really fresh, clean, creative food. (A)

Magnus on Water. Amazing cocktails, great service, and the outdoor seating area was just right. (A-)

The Lost Daughter. Gah, so good! Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, and Jessie Buckley are all fantastic and the direction and cinematography (all those tight, almost suffocating shots) were just great. Gonna be thinking about this one for awhile. (A+)

Therapy. I’ve got more to say about this at some point, but I’ve been seeing a therapist since September and it’s been really helpful. (A)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I enjoyed this quite a bit, more than Black Widow or The Eternals (haven’t seen latest Spidey yet). (B+)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings soundtrack. Really, really good — been blasting this in the car a lot lately. (A)

Dune. Felt good to see a serious blockbuster in the theater again. And to be able to rewatch it on HBO Max a couple of weeks later. (A-)

Ravine. I’ve only played this a couple of times with the kids, but it got high marks all around for fun and quick rounds. (B+)

The Power of the Dog. A slow burn with a great payoff. Wonderful cast & direction. (A)

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. I loved the first half of this book — lots of pithy observations about social media. (B+)

Don’t Look Up. Everyone is comparing this to Dr Strangelove and while it’s not quite on that level, it certainly does some of the same things for climate change that DS did for nuclear war. (A)

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut. A super interesting mix of historical fact and narrative fiction about the swift technological changes that took place in the early 20th century that altered history in small and large ways. (A-)

Wingspan. Bought this game after reading Dan Kois’ review and our family has been enjoying it. (B+)

Pirates of the Caribbean. Still fun. I remember being very skeptical before seeing this for the first time back when it came out, but as soon as Jack Sparrow stepped off his sinking ship right onto the dock, I knew it was going to be good. (A-)

Clear and Present Danger. I don’t actually remember watching much of this…must have switched off my brain too much. (-)

Spies in Disguise. I read the plot synopsis of this on Wikipedia and I still don’t remember watching any of it. I think the kids liked it? (-)

The Courier. Solid spy thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Based on a true story. (B+)

Finch. Charming but nothing much actually happens? (B)

Eternals. Now that the Infinity Saga is done, I’m not sure how much interest I’m going to have in some of these new characters & storylines. (B)

Mad Max Fury Road. Seventh rewatch? Eighth? I just plain love this movie. (A)

No Time to Die. I am not really a James Bond fan but I liked this one. (B+)

Succession (season three). This got off to a bit of a slow, meandering start, but the last few episodes were just fantastic. (A)

Omicron variant. You think you’re out but they keep pulling you back in. (F-)

Swimming with bioluminescent plankton. Thought the water was going to glow as I swam through it, but it was more like sparkly fireworks. Magical. (A)

Xolo Tacos. We stumbled in here for dinner after nothing else looked good and were rewarded with the best tacos on Holbox. The carne asada taco might be the best taco I’ve had in years and we ended up ordering a second round. (A)

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney. I liked this one slightly less than her first two novels. But only slightly. (A-)

Free Guy. Fun entrant into the video game movie genre. (B+)

Hacks. It was fine but ultimately didn’t understand why so many people on my timeline were raving about this. (B+)

NY Times Crossword app. I’ve never been much for crossword puzzles, but the Times app does all the fiddly work (e.g. of finding the current clue’s boxes, etc.) for me so I’ve been enjoying dipping my toe into the Monday and Tuesday puzzles. But the Minis and Spelling Bee are where it’s at for me. (B+)

The Hunt for Red October. Still a great thriller. (A-)

Avatar: The Last Airbender. After watching The Legend of Korra, the kids and I went back to watch Avatar. The first season and a half is kinda uneven, but overall we really liked it. The beach episode has to be one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen on television and the one where Aang is hallucinating from the lack of sleep made my kids laugh so hard I thought they were going to pass out. (A-)

The Matrix Resurrections. I am someone who didn’t dislike the second and third Matrix movies as much as everyone else seemed to, and so it is with this one as well. Wish I could have seen this in the theater, but Omicron. (A-)

The Wrong Trousers. The last five minutes is still maybe the best chase scene in movie history. (A)

Preview of the next media diet: I am enjoying the hell out of Lauren Groff’s Matrix, want to read The Lost Daughter, just started the last season of The Expanse, listening to the audiobook version of Exhalation, want to check out Station Eleven on HBO Max, and plan on watching Pig, Drive My Car, and Licorice Pizza. Oh, and I need to dig into the second seasons of The Great and For All Mankind. And more GBBO! We’ll see how much of that I actually follow through on…

Past installments of my media diet are available here.

  1. Nothing serious, I am embarrassed to say. I just got really into the weeds with a number of things and I kinda fell to pieces.

Get Back: Creativity Lessons from The Beatles

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 17, 2021

the Beatles asking for some toast and tea during a practice session

I haven’t had a chance to watch Peter Jackson’s Beatles documentary yet, but I really enjoyed reading Tom Whitwell’s 10 lessons in productivity and brainstorming from The Beatles gleaned from the series.

1. The ‘yes… and’ rule

The first rule of improvisation (and brainstorming) is “yes… and”. When someone suggests an idea, plays a note, says a line, you accept it completely, then build on it. That’s how improvisational comedy or music flows. The moment someone says ‘no’, the flow is broken. It’s part of deferring judgement, where you strictly separate idea generation from idea selection.

As they slog through Don’t Let Me Down, George breaks the spell. Instead of building and accepting he leaps to judgement, saying “I think it’s awful.” Immediately, John and Paul lay down the rules: “Well, have you got anything?” “you’ve gotta come up with something better”.

Don’t judge, build.

I worked on a secret project recently (shhh…) where I really wanted to just say no but chose to do “yes… and” instead, which led my collaborator and I to a better solution. I love the improv rule, but it’s so hard for me to follow sometimes because my job is basically saying no to things all day.

6. One conversation at a time

One of the striking thing about the sessions is how polite everyone is. Perhaps it’s editing, but nobody speaks over anyone else. Everyone has a chance to be heard, which means people spend most of the time listening, rather than talking (apart from Paul, perhaps).

This is another lesson from musical and theatrical improvisation. The difference between a creative environment and a bunch of people shouting out ideas is the listening.

You can read all ten lessons here.

Vanity Fair Interviews Billie Eilish for a Fifth Consecutive Year

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2021

Since Billie Eilish was 15 years old in 2017, Vanity Fair has been interviewing her every year to see what she is up to, how she is feeling, and what has changed from previous years. A key message from this year’s video, in response to “technological thing that blows your mind”:

The vaccine, dude. Hell fucking yeah. I really, really urge you — if you are not already vaccinated, please get vaccinated. It’s not just for you, you selfish bitch. It’s for everyone around you. Take care of the people around you, man. Protect your friends, protect your children, protect your grandparents, protect anyone you walk by.

If you haven’t seen this before, it’s interesting to go back to watch the interviews from 2017 & 2018, 2019, and 2020 — it’s a fascinating chronicle of a young woman getting really famous really fast and growing up in public. Like I said last year:

I still marvel that Vanity Fair embarked on this project with this particular person. They could have chosen any number of up-and-coming 2017 pop singer/songwriters and they got lucky with the one who went supernova and won multiple Grammys.

See also R.J. Cutler’s 2021 documentary about Eilish, The World’s a Little Blurry and Mel Brooks at 95 (about a long life lived in public).

A Short History (and Future) of Choir Music in Movies

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 08, 2021

a sound designer at a mixing board scoring a film

Adrian Daub has noticed something unusual about choir music in movies: usually, we can’t understand the lyrics. For some reason, it’s important to have human voices rather than an instrument or orchestra carrying the musical load, but the linguistic content, whether it’s in pseudo-Latin, a made up Tolkien language, or Sanskrit translations of Welsh, usually might as well be empty.

This dates from the 1930s, when sound in movies got sophisticated enough to handle simultaneous polyvocal sound, the era of movie musicals and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

And then there was Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937). The film concerns the discovery of Shangri-La in the Himalayas, and when we finally get to the fabled land the soundtrack accompanies the matte-painted wonderland with a chorus singing in… well, in a language that isn’t English and doesn’t seem to be Tibetan either. And thus another Hollywood tradition was born: film choruses belting out perfectly nonsensical prose with utter conviction.

The film’s producers tried to claim that the choral music from Lost Horizon was rooted in Tibetan folk traditions, but this, Daub writes persuasively, is plainly nonsense, and nonsense about nonsense to boot. What matters isn’t the sense, but the feeling, not the authenticity, but the cinematic je-ne-sais-quoi (literally, je ne sais rien) of the music.

What’s more, music choirs (even the nonsensical, polyglot ones) have gone digital and programmable:

The EastWest Symphonic Choirs software allows you to make a virtual choir sing in just about any style imaginable. Want your ooos and aaas to sound like a whisper? More Broadway or more classical? All of that’s in the package.

But there’s more: Due to a system called WordBuilder, you can have this choir sing pretty much anything — you can type in text in English, in phonetics, or a proprietary alphabet called Votox, and the software will assemble it out of a massive databank of vowels and consonants…

All the professional singers I spoke to were keenly aware of products like EastWest Symphonic Choirs and the sample libraries — because more likely than not they’re in them. If you’re in the business of singing on film, these days you won’t always be asked to sing for an actual score, but instead you might get booked to record samples. There’s a scary possibility that these artists are slowly eroding the industry’s need for their labor — that the fruits of their one day of paid work will perform for the studios in perpetuity and with no extra residuals.

At the moment, though, singers come pretty cheap — and in many cases, even a union shop in a city like London (a favorite of movie music producers for just this reason) might insist only on a set rate without residuals. They’re even good at singing their way around nonsense:

As the soprano Catherine Bott said: “You enter a studio and you open the score and off you go. You sing what you’re told, and it’s all about versatility, just being able to adapt to the right approach, whatever that may be for that conductor or that composer.” And part of that, singers told me, was singing the words — whatever they may be. As Donald Greig pointed out to me, a lot of these singers have training in classics; they certainly know their way around a Requiem or a Stabat Mater. And yet often enough when they step into Abbey Road they’re being asked to sing perfectly nonsensical phrases in pseudo-Latin — but the studio is booked, the clock is ticking, and as Bott put it, “that’s not the time to put up your hand and, you know, correct the Latin.”

But the thing is, many of us have some experience being sung at in Latin we don’t understand — it’s the Catholic mass. And as Daub writes, the emotional content of the mass (and the accompanying tradition of Latin choral music) has never depended on its intelligibility — in fact, it’s often benefitted from the fact that few if any of the audience could understand what is being said word for word.

Whether they’re after a feeling of evil (as in The Omen), magic (Harry Potter), exotic African-ness (the misplaced Swahili of The Lion King), or familiarity (Black Widow’s callback to the theme from The Avengers), movie producers are literally counting on familiar human voices being misunderstood.

The Vinyl Boom

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 06, 2021

Bar chart titled The Huge Resurgence of Vinyl Records; vinyl records projected to break 30m units (LPs) sold in 2021

About five years ago, a funny thing happened: for birthdays and holidays, instead of LEGO sets or basketball jerseys, my son started asking me to buy him vinyl records. I happily complied: it was fun to mix new and old records together, track down semi-rare albums, and then listen to the music together, plus talk about music all the time.

It turns out my teen wasn’t an outlier: younger people are buying vinyl at a rate not seen in over a generation, not just as collectors or as an affectation, but as a first-line way to enjoy music, new and old. What’s more, the revenue from vinyl sales was a small but substantial lifeline to artists squeezed by streaming’s stingy royalty rates.

At The Hustle, Zachary Crockett does the math:

For modern-day indie artists, it’s a welcome boom. A vinyl record costs ~$7 to manufacture, and a band typically sells it directly to fans for $25, good for $18 in profit. By contrast, streaming services only pay out a fraction of a penny for each listen. A band would have to amass 450k streams on Spotify to match the profit of 100 vinyl sales.

There are also moments where the streaming and vinyl economy come together. Bandcamp has a vinyl pressing service, and some of the most popular music videos on YouTube are needle drop recordings of a fan playing a vinyl record.

There are some bottlenecks, though. First, streaming is a much bigger ocean than vinyl. Second, vinyl’s manufacturing capacity is greatly reduced from its heyday, making it more arduous and fragile to make, manufacture, and distribute a vinyl record. Finally, the environmental impacts of vinyl manufacturing aren’t great.

But the aesthetics — oh, the sweet joy of a needle on a record — the aesthetics can’t be beat.

Update: Crockett’s arithmetic above is a little hasty. For one thing, it doesn’t include shipping costs, which can either make a record much more expensive or cut into the profit margin. It’s definitely a better profit margin than streaming music royalties, but it is one where costs are at a premium.

What Movies Can Teach Us About Mozart’s Music

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2021

Typically, we think of music in movies in terms of what the music adds to the visuals. Music often tells us how to feel about what we’re seeing — it sets the mood and provides an emotional context. But, as Evan Puschak details in this video, you can also learn something about music (Mozart, in this case) from the way in which talented directors and music producers deploy it in movies, particularly when they use it unconventionally.

[These films and TV shows] teach us something about the Lacrimosa. They open up doors in the music that maybe even Mozart didn’t see. This is what’s so cool about movies — they bring art forms together and, in these collisions, it’s possible to see some really beautiful sparks.

Visualizing Auto-Tuned Vocals (Freddie vs. Bublé)

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2021

Using the sound visualizations of two tracks, one from Freddie Mercury and the other from Michael Bublé, Fil Henley shows us how to recognize the subtle auto-tuning that has applied to the vocals of some recordings (like Bublé’s in this instance). You can see quite easily that the precise hitting and holding of notes in the auto-tuned version is unnaturally superhuman. (via the morning news)

Meet the Liverbirds!

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 05, 2021

In the early 60s in Liverpool, inspired by going to see The Beatles at the legendary Cavern Club, four teenaged girls formed the Liverbirds, one of the first all-female rock bands. They toured Britain and gained their greatest fame in Hamburg, Germany, where they followed the Beatles by playing at the Star-Club. During their six-year existence, the band played with Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks. In this installment of Almost Famous, the group’s two remaining members detail the history of the band. What a great story.

An Animated Music Video for a Jarvis Cocker Cover, Directed by Wes Anderson

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 03, 2021

Wes Anderson has directed a stylish animated music video for Jarvis Cocker’s lovely cover of Christophe’s “Aline”, which was a big hit in France in the summer of 1965. The video, illustrated by Javi Aznarez, also doubles as a trailer/moving poster of sorts for the film in which the song appears, Anderson’s own The French Dispatch.

The song appears on the soundtrack for The French Dispatch, as well as on an album called Chansons d’Ennui Tip-Top, a collection of French pop songs covered by Cocker in character as Tip-Top, the character he voices in the movie. (via open culture)

Cosmic Relaxation

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 28, 2021

Eight hours of ambient chillout music over images pulled from NASA’s photographic archive of nebulas, galaxies, planets, and other celestial objects? Sure, I’m in.

See also Hours and Hours of Relaxing & Meditative Videos.

Dave Grohl Plays Drums Along with the Original Recording of Smells Like Teen Spirit

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 27, 2021

At an event for the release of his recent memoir, The Storyteller, Dave Grohl got behind his drum kit and played along with the original recording of Smells Like Teen Spirit. You might notice that Grohl grimaces a bit right at the beginning — this is maybe the first time (or one of a handful of times) he’s played this song with Kurt Cobain’s vocals since Cobain died. From the video’s description:

It probably wasn’t easy for DG to get to this point where he was willing to share. At the show (and in his book and many interviews) he actually talked about the long path it took to get to not only TALK about Kurt, but to even want to listen to ANY music after his death. Still, a lot of time has passed, which always helps. And in the meantime, Dave has become quite a talented, thoughtful storyteller. I am sure, as difficult as it will always be to him, it probably also now a cathartic experience for him. At least I hope it is.

(via open culture)