Monday, July 28, 2008

No means no

Last week, an organisation in the UK commissioned a poll of 1000 people in the Irish electorate, to explore views regarding the Lisbon Treaty, which was rejected by a healthy margin in a referendum last month.

The poll revealed that 71% of those polled oppose a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, with 62% saying they would vote “no” if asked again (an even higher margin in favour of voting ‘no’ than that achieved in the official referendum.)

The Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Martin has now accused the UK group involved (apparently a ‘eurosceptic’ think tank) of “meddling in [Ireland’s] national debate on the Lisbon Treaty”.

In what way is taking an opinion poll meddling?

As the electorate of Ireland have categorically rejected the Lisbon treaty, perhaps the government might like to spell out exactly what “debate” it is we are now supposed to be having?

Perhaps in this instance, it might be in the greater interest of Brian Cowen and his cronies to stand up straight and represent the views of the Irish people to the European politicians, rather than trying to impose the views of European politicians on the Irish electorate.

These would be the same European politicians who, when confronted with an amendment to the Lisbon Treaty stating “The European Parliament undertakes to respect the outcome of the referendum in Ireland”, voted “No” (499 to 129) to the amendment.

They may not respect the outcome of the referendum, but that doesn’t mean that the Irish cannot vote however they want.

Also, those parties in Irish government might like to reflect on the likely domestic political implications for them if they choose to go for a second referendum on Lisbon, and then fail to get it through.

No means no…

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Extreme Crosswinds

Ever been in a plane and thought you had a rough landing? A few bumps from wind are ok - the real fun comes when the wind is blowing sideways across the runway - the hated crosswind. Instead of pointing the plane directly at the runway, you have to cant the nose sideways into the crosswind, and allow the aircraft to effectively crab diagonally forward.

And then the fun part being that as you hit the runway, you have to twist the plane back in line with the runway, so that as the wheels grip, you don't run off sideways due to your diagonal approach. Of course, nothing is more fun than an extreme crosswind landing!

Here's a Korean Airlines 747, which having survived the insane approach to the old Kai-Tak airport at Hong Kong, comes out of the final big turn and then manages to mess up his approach horrifically in quite a light crosswind. This should really have resulted in a go-around, and the pilots insistence in sticking it on the runway only just comes off.

Here's an example of someone getting it very, very wrong in a much smaller Airbus, trying to set down in Hamburg, in a much more extreme crosswind situation.

Having nearly decorated the airfield with the plane, the pilot ultimately does well to perform a go-around and manage to get it back in the air again in one piece.

It puts in perspective what most of us mistakenly call a "rough" landing...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Electronic Dancing Music

Wandering aimlessly around the music blogs recently, I stumbled across this post by Pipecock over at Infinite State Machine, which references this post by Ronan Fitzgerald, which references this post by Philip Sherburne on Pitchfork.

The Philip Sherburne post seems to amount to musings along the lines of “everything seems quite grim at the moment”. Ronan Fitzgerald nuances this with an assessment that seemingly the dance music scene hates itself at the moment due to an overload of minimal hype that has yet to be replaced with something else, and points out that purism tends to ignore the murky and druggy aspects of dance culture, that he (rightly I think) points out are nearly as fundamental as the music itself.

I think the minimal hype overload thing is a bit annoying, but it's not so difficult to avoid - just keep buying records (or making records) instead of paying so much attention. The process of the underground spawning mini-scenes for the mainstream to hype for 2-3 years has been going on ever since I've been interested in dance music, and having that overground part taking all the attention seems to be quite a reliable and efficient way of allowing the underground to stay where it is, doing the inventive stuff.

But Pipecock’s post is by far the most interesting, recontextualising the discussion in terms of what dance music is really about, and since this leads him to consider some of the most interesting aspects of the dance music experience, it’s well worth a look over.

Quoting from ISM:
"The reason house and techno are effective is that they bypass so many of the limitations that other musics have and go straight for people’s emotions."
This goes to the heart of the attraction of dance music - there is something in the driving loop of a house groove that is deeply entrancing, to the point where your brain does start to function differently, particularly as you dance. I'd go so far as to say the appeal of the cranking looping kick drum is to a place even deeper than your 'emotions', and Pipecock’s allusion to a Zen analogy may not be too far off. As the KLF said in their tongue-in-cheek (but spectacularly insightful) book “The Manual”, “it is through dance music and dancing we are able to get momentarily back to the Garden”.
"Musicians talk about music “writing itself” while athletes routinely make plays that they wouldn’t have thought possible. It all comes from letting the mind go, which is exactly the opposite of the way these critics have been approaching dance music."
This is a problem, but it’s a problem that is difficult to surmount. Any discussion of dance music necessarily requires an intellectual response, but the ‘switching off’ nature of the dance experience in it’s proper context is one of de-activating some of the higher functions of the brain (such as analysis and ego), in favour of the lower and more primal functions (direct experience and id). It’s difficult to critically analyse music whose central experience revolves around the suspension of analysis – and while this doesn’t mean that analysis of dance music is invalid (many great house and techno tracks stand up to analysis just fine), it is important to be aware of the contradictions implicit in analysing music in this way.
"Thought is required to use Ableton to deejay, the actions are more mental than physical and that diminishes the ability to reach the point of “action without thought”. The same goes for the producers who are more like computer scientists than musicians in many cases."
I have a couple of problems with software such as Ableton (amazing though it is), one of them being the “computer scientist” performance that it tends to elicit from the DJ. While really it should be all about the audio experience, you can’t help but be affected by the attitude and energy coming from the DJ themselves. Another problem is that Ableton and similar Djing software tend to result in perfect beatmatched tracks. There is the argument that beatmatching itself is a redundant and purely technical skill, and automating it allows the DJ to concentrate on selection, set progression, ‘mixing’ between the tracks and parts, etc etc etc. This would be a valid argument if the human beatmatching process contributed nothing to the experience, but I feel there is something in the imperfections of manually mixed tracks that imparts a uniquely human energy to a mix. There’s nothing like the buzz of dancing away, while a mix of two records slowly gets pulled in to shape by the DJ. For an example, listen to Jeff Mills “Live in Tokyo” album – it’s far from perfectly nailed timing, but it has an awesome raw energy to it, partially imparted by the fact you can hear the human pushing, dragging, and willing the records to sit together as he blisters through his set at a jaw-dropping rate.

As for computer software and interfaces when writing music, this is one of the biggest issues for me when writing in music. While I do use a computer, I try to use it as little as possible, and only for the things that it can do best – hardware for me is much more conducive to creativity. This is largely a matter of taste, but I believe that computers and music software in particular have way too many options, and then force you to access these options via the most narrow and awkward of interfaces (mice and keyboards). It compounds the “painting the hallway through the letterbox” problem of programming early digital studio hardware on tiny LCDs, with the problem exacerbated by having so many options in the software to begin with. It becomes very hard to apply quality control, as the endless range of miniscule editing options leads you to believe that endless tweaking of a mediocre idea might turn it into a great track. All of this tweaking costs energy, and I find it ultimately far more inspiring to have hardware with less options. This means your idea is either good straight away, or not good enough – in which case you can ditch it and move on to the next idea.

Ultimately, the problem is one of barriers between us and experiencing music as directly as possible. Be it the problem of critical analysis interfering with our direct listening or dancing experience, or be it Ableton Live interfering with our experience of the human playing the music, or be it with heavy music software in the studio interfering with our ability to quickly and directly interpret musical ideas without breaking out of the creative moment, the problem is the same.

Any time that we allow barriers to be raised between us and our direct experience of the music, something is lost - and the removal of these barriers (whether naturally or with assistance) is what makes the experience of dancing to this music so alluring.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Terrorist Watch List

Today, Counterpunch carries the quite stunning news that the US terrorism watch list now contains 1 million people.

1 million people!

The list includes such luminaries as the ex-assistant US Attorney. That's right - the terrorist watch list is now so large, it's starting to assimilate the higher parts of the US governement itself. As The Matrix's Morpheus might have said: clearly, police states are not without a sense of irony.

Those in Britain - now the country with the most closed-circuit TV cameras per capita of any country in the world, might want to stop giggling at this point. As has been very astutely pointed out, once the camera apparatus is physically in place and face recognition software becomes robust enough (if it isn't already), following the movements of everyone at every moment simply becomes a problem of networking and processing power.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Informed Comment

Here's another blog on the politics tip that's utterly fascinating - Informed Comment, by Juan Cole.

Cole is (I think) a professor at some US college, and he presents daily dissections of US foreign policy, the Middle East, and generally very fairly assesses what is going on - compelling reading.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

John D McHugh

Here's a blog worth reading... John D McHugh is an Irish photographer and journalist, who was injured while embedded with the US forces in Afghanistan.

He's now back in Afghanistan, back with the US forces, and telling the story from the ground.

While I have my own opinions on whether US and European troops should be where they are, I do think he's telling a story that is a bit missed generally - the story of what it is like for the soldiers on the ground.

Check out his new diary of this year in Afghanistan here - now added it to the list of recommended blogs.

Friday, July 04, 2008

E-MU SP1200

Today I had the honour of taking apart the peerless SP1200 sampling drum machine. One of the original hip-hop machines (well, that was really the SP12 but let's not pick nits), this thing is a legend. Google for SP1200 and it quickly becomes clear.

It's always a bit bizzare when you take apart a bit of music gear, and suddenly find the electronics that make it work - something you tend not to think about when writing the music.

Here's the main circuit board on the SP - a frightening array of chips:

And from another angle. It was 1985 I suppose - but all this technology gives you a grand total of 10 seconds (!) of sampling time. Chiporama.

As with many early E-MU hardware units, there are cryptic inscriptions screened on the boards. On the reverse of the front-panel circuit board, you find this:

Anyone anything to offer on who Louis McCrawfish might have been?

Finally, a shot of the front-panel board (sitting out of the machine), across the top of the 8 volume faders that launched a million hip hop hits.

I remember sampling a little Boss drum machine on the SP1200 I used to own. What went in sounding tinny and thin came back out of the SP sounding like God playing Satan's own drumkit.

It's inspiringly simple to use, and what comes out aren't "drums" - they're devastatingly heavy, punchy and gritty 12-bit impacts.

Does music hardware get any better?