Music


I’m partial to a good piece of musical theatre. Call it nostalgia, or call it sentiment, but like the idea of dramas brought to life with song. I grew up in a home where my mother was constantly rehearsing for one part or another so by osmosis I know all of West Side Story, the King & I, Oliver and numerous other stellar productions of the musical theatre ouvre. Later in my life I discovered the witty brilliance of Cole Porter and then the extraordinary talent of Stephen Sondheim, who became my favourite writer of musicals.1

I’ve seen a few Sondheim works performed on stage – Into the Woods; A Little Night Music; Sweeney Todd – and heard most of them as recordings. I’m always intrigued when I hear that a musical is slated for a cinema treatment because I think they can work quite well in this form. I’m especially interested when it’s Sondheim. You’ll all no doubt remember that Tim Burton made a version of Sweeney Todd for the screen some years ago, starring the inimitable Johnny Depp. It’s not one of my favourite adaptations, but I didn’t hate it either.

What was kind of bizarre about the launch publicity for that film was that the initial few trailers didn’t portray any of the characters singing. Since Sweeney Todd is closer to an operetta than a musical – that is, the whole thing is pretty much sung – to produce such a trailer is not something you achieve without a great deal of contrivance.

People who weren’t expecting the film to be a musical were widely pissed off at this piece of disingenuous pretence and there were even official complaints made about it.

Now Disney is about to release a cinematic version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods – and they’ve done the exact same thing!

WHYYYYYYY?

I find it hard to imagine the kind of discussion that must have gone on in the Disney Marketing Department’s offices to arrive at this lumpen, meaning-challenged amputee of a trailer. Nevertheless, I will give it a try.

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: What we need is a trailer that will get EVERYONE to come see the film!

Disney Uber Marketing Boss’s Executive Researcher: But our data shows that everyone except senile old people and children hate musicals.

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: Then we have to FOOL people into coming into the cinema!2

Disney Uber Marketing Boss’s Executive Researcher: I guess so…

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: I know! We could make a trailer that has no singing in it! Make it look like a normal film.

Disney Uber Marketing Boss’s Executive Researcher: But it’s a musical. It’s all singing. Everyone sings. All the time.

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: Surely there are some bits where they don’t actually sing?

Disney Uber Marketing Boss’s Executive Researcher: Well, yes, there are three moments in the film where the words are sort of half-spoken… and I think once or twice there may be five or six seconds where Johnny or Meryl are about to sing but haven’t quite opened their mouths…

Disney Uber Marketing Boss: Excellent. Chuck in a few special effects and a guy saying ‘In a world beyond your imagination…’ and it’s sorted! Let’s get our editor onto it!

What I don’t understand is who, exactly, their lame, half-baked, non-singing trailer is aimed at? Into the Woods is a work that is based entirely on fairy tales – do they really believe that taking the music out will give them a chance with the vast goldmine of 14-25 year olds who rock up to see Guardians of the Galaxy? Do these daft studio executives think that they’ll somehow get an opening weekend of those people who’ll be sitting there in the dark and have some kind of popcorn-infused epiphany: ‘Hey, this singing instead of dialogue is THE BOMB!!! And then text all their friends: ‘Hey G!! This musical opera thing is cray sick. I totes can’t believe I thought it was gay!’

Even more perplexingly, if the studio isn’t committed to the idea of a musical, why the fuck did they make one in the first place? It’s not exactly something you do by accident. It’s almost like they’re embarrassed by it or something.

And the thing is, I reckon you could make a really great trailer with singing – it is after all almost a music video clip. I’ll even go one step further – I believe singing should be introduced into ALL movie trailers! You have to admit – for most of them it would improve things immeasurably. And it’s not like trailers are concerned anymore with giving you any idea of what the film is like.

  1. Sondheim did of course work with the incomparable Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, but he really began to shine when he started to compose music for his own lyrics. []
  2. Because that always works out well. []

It’s been some years since we last visited the Eurovision Song Contest, so I thought it was high time we indulged in another Tetherd Cow Ahead Live Blog Eurovision Spectacular. Joining me tonight on the couch are Violet Towne and Vermilion as we wing our virtual way like magical butterflies to the Swedish city of Malmö where the festivities are in full swing. As you know by now, the host country for the annual Eurovision Song Contest is the country of the previous Eurovision winner. and last year, we saw Sweden take the trophy with the remarkable Loreen and Euphoria

So that’s the standard that this year’s competitors must meet, dear Cowmrades. Can they do it? Well, with Eurovision you just never know what musical delights you might be served up. So. Are you sitting comfortably? OK then! Help yourself to some knäckebröd and kottbullar, top up your glögg and rack up the volume. It’s time for Eurovision 2013.

Right off the top, I have to say I’m in love with the host for this year, Petra Mede. She is a vision in eyeball-scorching pink, and launches into the proceedings with scarily enunciated posh English. In the rehearsals she referred to herself (admirably sarcastically) as ‘the Swedish Oprah’ and I really have to take exception to that – if Oprah was this funny and talented, I’d watch her show every day. Who’s up first Petra?

Aha. Looks like it’s France. Dressed in a frock made of black licorice strips, Ms France is evidently channeling Courtney Love, only not very well. She seems to like running her hands down the licorice. It’s unsettling. The song is featureless and boring and it ends not a moment to soon. Petra senses the possible abandonment of the telecast by a million viewers and wastes no time in ushering Lithuania onto the mirror-finish black glass stage.

The Lithuanian entry is called ‘Something’ but a few chords in and it’s pretty obvious that ‘Nothing’ would have been more appropriate. It sounds like an awkwardly-phrased version of a bad New Order song. And then the chorus comes:

If you don’t know, I’m in love with you
When summertime falls, it becomes untrue
Because of the shoes, I’m wearing today
One is called love, the other is pain

No, I haven’t a clue either. It is possible that the last line was ‘One is called love, the other is Spain’, which doesn’t make it any more understandable, but at least it adds a level of surreality. The song is ultimately dirgey and Mr Lithuania retires backstage to drown his sorrows.

Now it’s Moldova‘s turn. Ms Moldova is a striking redhead with a most unusual hairdo. It looks like someone smothered it in gel and then got her to stand with her back to an aircraft engine. If Eurovision was in 3D, we’d be ducking every time the camera came in for close-ups.

As you know, all the artists in the Eurovision Song Contest must perform their vocals live and this really separates the wheat from the chaff. Ms Moldova has a nice tune, but in some places she decides to sing it a few microtones lower than the one the band is playing. It is most unfortunate. Her choreographer has evidently sized up the possibility of this happening, though, and implemented a tried-and-true tactic: distraction. Ms Moldova is on fire! Well, not literally (and especially not figuratively), but some kind of fancy projection system paints her skirt with flames. She looks like a volcano! The spectacle becomes even more volcano-like when she starts to rise into the air, her dress spreading into a conical mountain beneath her. Up and up she goes! At any moment I expect her to be expelled from the top like a lava plug.

I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and never expect to again anytime soon. Which only goes to show that you shouldn’t attempt to anticipate the future when watching Eurovision.

I’m not quite sure how they got Ms Volcano off the stage, but they evidently did because now Finland is rocking on up. Oh my, oh my. This irksome pop number is about as twee as one can get before falling off the end of pop and landing in a dumpster full of plush teddybears and message balloons. It reminds me as nothing so much as a peroxided reanimated zombie Tony Basil number, only without the same level of profundity in the lyrics.1 The song is a plea by Ms Finland for her beau to ‘Marry Me’ which is a rather prosaic set up for what is intended to be the we-got-you-with-that-one whammy at the end: a girl-on-girl kiss. Only, this is the third time this has been done on Eurovision, so it looks like nothing more than a lame grab for the gay vote. Where’s my nerf brick?

Spain is on next with a song called ‘With You Until The End’. The haunting strains of that familiar Spanish instrument – the bagpipes – propel a nervous Ms Spain into her number. Dressed in a golden yellow frock, she is pretty as a daffodil – with about the same level of musical talent as one. I wish I could say I was with her until the end, but she lost me on the first tuneless verse.

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Information Break: Lest you think I’m being overly harsh on Ms Spain and Ms France, let me just outline here a little something that I didn’t know about the Eurovision until this year. As you are probably aware, the Eurovision Song Contest is fiercely contested, and the process for selection of the acts begins many months before the actual finals. Each country has competitions and heats, and then there are several playoffs to choose the best of the best from each country’s offerings. Unless, that is, you are one of the ‘pre-qualified’ countries – the Big Five, as they have become known. France, Italy, Spain, UK and Germany automatically make the finals. Why? Because they are the biggest contributors to the European Broadcast Union. In other words, they buy their way in. This is just jaw-droppingly outrageous (but, of course, oh-so-European). The downside of this, though, is that the Big Five don’t get the fierce and relentless training for the stage that the other countries all must endure, and so tend to perform awfully on the big night. Tonight is no exception, as we shall see…

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Anyways, Ms Spain tries her darndest but it’s not enough. She struggles through to the finish and some fireworks go off by way of compensation.

Petra does her schtick and Roberto from Belgium takes the floor. I quite like Roberto. At the very least he can sing in tune. His song is called ‘Love Kills’ and he delivers it with aplomb. Unfortunately, whoever choreographed Roberto’s act didn’t get the memo about not upstaging the star. Two dancers flank his every move with the oddest routine I’ve seen in a long long while. I am so distracted by their spastic head wobbling and jerky gesturing that I become transfixed. What will they do next? They’re framing their groins with their hands! Now they’re feeling themselves up! Miming splashing water on their faces! Swinging baseball bats! It really is MOST peculiar. I don’t know how Roberto is staying in tune. I know my own voice has gone up several octaves in pitch in sheer disbelief. But the crowd seems to like it all and Roberto finishes up with style. I think he’s got a chance.

Estonia is on now, with the tv cameras going to black & white for the opening verse. No idea why. Don’t care, because the song is dull and forgettable. Maybe the black & white is an expression of how colourless it is. Belarus erases the musty taste somewhat with sprightly Ms Belarus springing enthusiastically out of a giant mirror ball and launching into a boppy South American-style number. It’s rather too calculated for my taste though, so I am happy when it winds itself up and Malta takes the stage.

Mr Malta serenades us with a little ditty about ‘Jeremy who works in IT’. It’s done with infectious light-heartedness, and I can see Malta being strong in the finish. There’s not much to remark about though, so we’ll move on to Russia. Ms Russia’s song is dreary. Russia does dreary very well. It’s called ‘What If’. It should be called ‘What Ever’.

Now it’s Germany‘s turn. Like the other ‘pre-qualified’ countries, no-one here tonight has seen this entry ‘in the flesh’. Will she be able to stay on pitch, or is pre-qualification a guarantee of tunelessness…? (You only need watch the first thirty seconds)

Well, I guess that answers that. ‘She has no grace,’ says Vermilion, and never a truer word was spoken. It’s an ungainly and rueful performance, with a song that’s nothing more than a shameless awful clone of last year’s winner ‘Euphoria’ that you saw above.

Now it’s Armenia‘s turn to shine. Uh-oh, it’s a band with an eco-message. Now, worthy save-the-planet pleading has never been much at home in this frothy celebration of cheesy pop, though many have tried. These guys think their Tony Iommi co-penned number might just break the curse… but they are deluded. With more denim in one place than I’ve seen since the 70s, they earnestly deploy some of the worst lyrics I’ve heard in many years in an attempt to convince the audience that ‘we can stop it’. Please do, chaps, it would be best for everyone.

Are we even half way through yet? NO! But because I endured it, Faithful Acowlytes, so must you.

The Netherlands delivers up Anouk with a song called ‘Birds’.

‘Birds falling down the rooftops,
Out of the sky like raindrops’

It’s weird plaintive song that changes from one minor key into another – way too humourless for my liking, but Violet Towne thinks it’s a contender. We shall see.

It’s over soon enough and Petra calls forth the next aspiring star. Now this is the kind of moment we wait for in every Eurovision spectacular. Romania‘s entry in the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest is the inimitable Cesare. Can you conjure an image of the devil channeling Count Dracula doing a Klaus Nomi impersonation in a disco? Excellent – that’s Cesare’s performance. Offered up in a flaming red set bedecked with giant condoms, Cesare – like Ms Moldova earlier on – rises up into the air on his expanding cloak, propelled, quite certainly by his ever-ascending falsetto.

Say what you will about him, Cesare is committed. I want him to win because… well, dammit, just because he should. Man, where can we possibly go from here?

Petra show us the way! OK, looks like it’s the United Kingdom with Bonnie Tyler. Yes, you heard that right. Bonnie Tyler, the 1980s songstress better known for floating dresses, doves and unseemly relations with glowing-eyed school boys is Old Blighty’s 2013 offering. What can I say about Bonnie’s performance but oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Like walking in on your parents having sex, it’s something that it’s best you try to unsee. Let’s just shut the door and pretend it didn’t happen.

Quick, wheel out Sweden. Oh my god it’s not much better – an ex-wrestler in a straight jacket. VT and Vermilion thinks he has what it takes, but I can’t see us coming back to Malmö next year.

Now Hungary comes on with a hipster dude that just about out-hipsters every hipster I’ve ever seen, in attitude, appearance and performance.

He’s so introverted that I’m worried the digital broadcast signal has dropped out and the image stabilization on my TV has substituted a freeze frame. But no, there’s a slight movement on his left foot. His weird half-spoken delivery is kind of appealing though, so I’m not prepared to throw him on the EuroTrashHeap just yet. He finishes with an awkward shuffle and then it’s Denmark‘s turn. A bare-footed hippie girl is plonked centre stage in clouds of floaty hair and chiffon. Petra tells us that Ms Denmark is 19 years old, and is this year’s Eurovision favourite. The song ‘Only Teardrops’ certainly has all the requirements for a Eurovision win, and floaty Ms Hippie really knows how to work the audience. The irksome contrived catch in her voice notwithstanding, she delivers a faultless performance and it’s plain that the audience loves her. I wish her and her precociousness and her hair would take the accompanying tin whistle marching band and just fuck off and leave the stage to someone else.

Like Iceland. I mean, Iceland, right? Björk. Sigur Rós. Múm. This is a whole country of great musicians with unpronounceable names. They’ll deliver. And they do! It’s a Viking in a tuxedo: Eyþór Ingi. It’s a good start with the name! He’s the lead singer in Deep Purple cover band apparently, but tonight he has a haunting ballad which he manages to execute with admirable conviction. And I don’t mean ‘execute’ in a metal way – he actually can sing. I have no idea what he’s on about, but Violet Towne is already preparing our divorce papers. No question who she’s rooting for.

I do agree that he’s very likeable, but I’m not sure he’s winner material. Mr Azerbaijan might be, though. His choreographer should certainly get an extra plate of fiskbullar at the afterparty. It’s a truly amazing routine (and I’m not being sarcastic, for once) with an interesting bromantic overtone. It’s further enhanced by an explosive eruption of rose petals and the arrival of a vision who is part woman and part red-carpet. And the song is good too, as is Mr Azerbaijan’s performance. I like him for a contender. Well done Mr A!

Greece takes the stage with their entry ‘Alcohol Is Free’. Ha! I’m predisposed towards them from the get go…. but the song starts off disappointingly – please, not a folksy traditional offering. And then, ka-blam! Wow, it’s a Greek ska band. I have no clue what they’re singing about except when every chorus goes to English for ‘Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol is free HEY!’ That’s pretty unmistakeable. Their enthusiastic bopping and wild prancing is infectious. I’d go to these guys’ gigs! Alrighty, they have my vote for the winners of the 2013 Eurovision! Unless something better comes along. I am slightly concerned that winning could be problematic for them though – staging next year’s Eurovision might finish off Greece’s economy for good. I’m glad I don’t have a formal vote – the ethical dilemma would be too horrendous.

We’re nearing the finish line folks,2 as Ukraine fronts up. Oh dear. Ms Ukraine is delivered to the stage by a giant. Yes, an actual giant. He dumps her onstage and goes off to deal with his beanstalk as Ms Ukraine warbles a song about gravity. I think.

I’m like a butterfly
My gravity
I’m like a butterfly
and I should have stayed up high
It’s stronger than me
My gravity
My gravity
Gravity!

It’s all very wispy and Enya-ish, and Ms doe-eyed Ukraine yields it with every ounce of her being. The official video of this song on YouTube features not one but two unicorns and a literal truckload of butterflies. There isn’t enough gravity in the entire cosmos to bring it down to earth. But this is the kind of thing that sometimes gets the big vote here at Eurovision, so I’m a little worried…

The last of the pre-qualifiers, Italy, fronts up a dashing gigolo who can at least hold a tune. Not a memorable tune unfortunately. It’s over with as much panache as starts it – which is to say not much. Off he sashays backstage to try his luck with Ms Denmark in the green room. The stage is reset for Ms Norway, with ‘I Feed You’, making an outside bid for the fetish vote. Both VT and Vermilion like this one too, with her Dothraki hairdo and split-to-armpit white Game of Thrones dress. I’m underwhelmed – there aren’t enough dragons for my taste.

Only two more to go now, Georgia and Ireland, and they are both tedious. Ms Georgia wafts around with her boyfriend in dry ice fog. ‘I’m sailing on a sea of clichés’ she sings – or at least I think that’s what it was. They sail off into anonymity to make way for Mr Ireland who is a cross between Justine Bieber and Bono. The muscle boy bodhran players who leap around in the background are an unashamed last ditch effort for a sliver of the gay vote.

And then, just like that, it’s over.

We hang around for the voting, and it’s a close jockeying between the predictable Ms Hippie Denmark, the spacey Ms Ukraine and the more worthy Mr Azerbaijan. Our favourites, the effervescent Greek ska boys, and the besuited Icelandic Viking don’t even get a look-in. Before long, it’s clear there’ll be teardrops before bedtime and we’ll be heading off to Copenhagen in 2014.

I hope you’ll join me there.

  1. You have to click on the Tony Basil link to get that joke. []
  2. I’m somewhat disappointed that Finland was on so early and I can’t say ‘We’re nearing the Finnish line’. []

So at last, my mysterious project is complete.

You saw Laura a couple of days ago as she arrived, straight out of the box. She was not quite as perfect as I would have liked, so the first step involved some surgery…

As did the second step. ‘Trust me Laura,’ I said ‘I’m a doctor’. Well, I’m a Reverend, and that’s as good as, right? I mean, with God the Cow on my side, how can I do wrong? A little release of intracranial pressure…

Ah, that’s better. And now for the pièce de résistance… And Binauralaura (Laura to her friends) is ready to begin to listen…

Binauralaura is my new binaural recording rig. Here begins the edumacation part of this post, so those who came for the titillation can now go watch Fox news and eat donuts.

To start, you should know that when you hear a stereo recording of sound or music – pretty much any recording – it is presented to your ear in a very different way to the way in which you actually hear in reality. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that most sound recordings, and most music recordings in particular, use a somewhat artificial method to render their stereophonic sonic landscape. In a standard electronically-reproduced stereo domain, the stereo image is created from two point sources – your two hifi speakers, or two headphone speakers – each of which is fed by a discrete channel of recorded sound. All sound in a stereo field is thus contained in two separate, but interconnected, recordings – one for left and one for right. In simple terms, if a sound is only in the left channel, it will appear to come from your left. If it is only in the right channel, it will appear to come from your right. In almost all modern recordings, when an engineer wishes to make a sound feel like it is originating elsewhere in the stereo image – slightly left of centre, for instance – it is made slightly louder in the left channel than it is in the right. To make it appear to be right in front of you – or ‘centre’ as we say – then the volume is made exactly equal for both the left and the right channels. For over half a century, this result has been achieved by ‘panning’ the sound on a mixing console. A panner is simply a control that varies the amount of signal (or loudness) added to each channel.

In the real world, though, our ears don’t judge the position of a sound in space solely by its loudness. Certainly, loudness is one aspect of the mechanism, but there are numerous other factors in play. The principal one is a component of time. If you hear a dog barking somewhere ahead of you, and slightly to the left, one of your ears will be receiving a slightly greater sound pressure (loudness) than the other. But crucially, that same ear will be hearing the sound very slightly before your other ear does. The human brain can, in fact, differentiate time differences smaller than 10 microseconds between your two ears, and it is that ability which allows us to aurally locate objects in space with an accuracy of about 1 degree.12 Up until very recently, this time component could not be easily recreated in a studio mixing environment, and since – like most things – the recording process is a trade-off between the achievement of perfection and economic imperative, the old panning paradigm is still alive and well (and dominant) in modern sound mixing facilities. I would make a rough guess that 99.9% of all music and sound you hear is rendered to stereo with crude analogue panning.

Now, some of you may be ahead of me slightly here, and interject: ‘But Reverend, what about a recording made solely with two microphones? There’s no mixing console involved there (so no artificial panning) and the sound of any object off centre to the microphones must arrive at slightly different times for each? Surely that’s preserved in a recording?’

Well, yes indeed. Two separate microphones (or a coincident stereo pair, to use the lingo) will indeed preserve the delay times inherent in the scene being recorded but they still don’t hear the world like our ears do.

The important thing to understand at this point is that when it comes to human hearing, our eardrums – our ‘microphones’ if you like – are only part of the story. There are several other key players in the process, the most important of which is our brain. Our brain and ears work together to ‘hear’ the world, and the way we hear is a lot more complex and clever than you probably ever stopped to think about.

One thing that every one of us knows (because our brain figures it out pretty much as soon as we are born) is that our ears are separated from one another by a head. Everything we experience in the realm of natural hearing is mitigated by this big noggin right in the middle of things. And our brain calculates our aural experience by taking it into account as it forms our sonic picture of the world. Likewise, we are accustomed to hearing our surroundings via two fleshy reflectors that funnel the sound toward the vibrating membranes that actually detect the sound waves. The complicated contours of our ears – the pinnae – don’t simply look like they do for decoration. The whorls and cavities of the ear surface impose certain kinds of characteristics on the sound that reaches them, and these help us with sound localisation, and, to a certain extent, with the perception of fidelity.

Which brings me all the way back to Binauralaura. Laura’s head contains a pair of high fidelity omnidirectional microphones that sit in her ears just at about the place where the outside part of the human ear canal would start.3

Her silicon pinnae are created from a CT scan of real human ears and these and her head create an aural ‘shadow’ which will match, in a generic way, the listening field of most humans.4 This means that a recording made with Binauralaura, will sound about as real as an audio recording can sound.5

So if binaural recording is so magnificent, why isn’t it used for everything? Well, there is, of course, a catch. The binaural effect can only properly be discerned by wearing headphones. For the binaural image to remain coherent, the sound for one ear must not interfere with the sound for the other. Additionally, in order to avoid a doubling of the head and pinnae shadow (one gained from the recording, and then a second from the listener’s own head and pinnae), the reproduced sound needs to be played back as close to the listener’s ear canal entrance as possible. The most expedient method to do this is via headphones or earbuds.6 Wearing headphones to properly hear binaural sound is, in fact, analogous to the requirement to wear glasses to see 3D images (indeed, binaural sound is often described as ‘3D’ or ‘holophonic’ sound).

I’ve had some opportunities to take Laura out for a bit of a test spin, and so far, the results are pretty nice. Here’s a short clip. Remember – wear headphones or earbuds to listen to it. One thing you will immediately notice is the clarity and and detail of the sound space. If your hearing is fair, you may also detect one of the extraordinary features of binaural sound – something you will not hear in a conventional stereophonic recording – and that is the ability to localise sound height. Have a listen now, and see why I went to all the trouble to build Binauralaura.

Download Laura Listens

  1. It’s more accurate if the sound is in front of you. As it approaches the extreme sides, the ability to pinpoint its location decreases. []
  2. As an aside, there is a species of fly which is so small that its ears are too close together for its head to have any effect on time delays between them. Instead, it has evolved an entirely different and novel way of localizing sound. The trick it uses (its ears are physically coupled together, allowing it to detect sub-microsecond delays) is currently being explored as a possible microphonic technique. []
  3. Not where the ear drums are – there’s a technical reason for this that I won’t go into here, but there are versions of binaural heads that do place the microphones right at the end of the ear canal. []
  4. It probably has occurred to you that most humans have small differences in the shapes and sizes of their ears. Shouldn’t this mean that one person hears differently to another? Well, yes, that’s right. To make a really convincing binaural recording for yourself, you would ideally put microphones in your own ears, and record with your own pinnae and head shape. Indeed, there are methods for doing this. To me, it does seem rather sonically masturbatory, though… []
  5. There are numerous other impediments to capturing a sound recording that would appear as real as reality. Mostly this has to do with the way our brain constantly interacts with the environment – not just the sound itself – to modify what we hear. And, in fact, what we think we hear is nothing like what we physcially hear. This problem is never really likely to ba addressed with a mechanical recording system. Until we have some kind of direct ‘neural recorder’ you can never really expect to experience a sound recording that is like really hearing something. []
  6. There are ways of achieving a serviceable binaural illusion in stereo speaker systems, but they are expensive, dependent on room acoustics, and require the listener to sit in a ‘sweet’ spot. Needless to say, all this is even less appealing than wearing headphones. []

The Huffington Post is carrying an article at the moment which is headlined:

Japanese HOLOGRAPH Plays Sold Out Concerts;
Science Fiction Comes To Life

The caps are theirs. Needless to say, once again this is not a holograph. Or a hologram either. In its typical air-headed style, the HuffPo goes on to delineate the fizz of the story while entirely missing the interesting bits:

In what is surely a terrible omen not only for musicians but also the continued existence of the world as we know it, holographs are now playing sold out concerts in, where else, Japan.

Firstly, I’ll reiterate (because stupid journalists just can’t seem to understand this) – the Hatsune Miku performances are NOT HOLOGRAMS. As I’ve said before on The Cow, we currently have no technology to allow anything like this as a holographic projection1 The giant avatars are simply projections on a screen. There is nothing three dimensional about them, as would be the case for a genuine hologram. Here’s a still frame from Hatsune Miku’s video Romeo and Cinderella, in which you can plainly see the flatness of the character, and the screen on which it’s projected:

It’s an impressive technical display, for sure, but it’s just a very bright projector and a piece of clever animation. You could, if you were motivated, achieve the same thing in your lounge room.

Of course, the Huffington Post, could have carried a story about what is actually happening here, which is far more interesting than their stupid and inaccurate ‘Look at those wacky Japanese and their holographs’ fluff piece.

The ‘live’ Hatsune Miku concerts are in fact the culmination of what was originally a promotional concept for the Vocaloid 2 speech synthesis engine. Vocaloid 2 is software developed at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain with funding by the Yamaha Corporation. The application takes snippets of real human voice and arranges them in such a way that the many complex parts of human speech can be controlled, via simple programming, to make coherent speech and song. In 2006, Vocaloid 2 was acquired from Yamaha by a the Japanese company Crypton Future Media, who, with exceptional insight, packaged it for sale to consumers as a ‘personality': Hatsune Miku, ‘an android diva in the near-future world where songs are lost.’ The name Hatsune Miku is literally translated as ‘future sound’. Miku’s voice is generated from recordings of voice actress Saki Fujita. Using Vocaloid, musicians are able to program the Miku voice to sing whatever lyrics they choose along with their music.

When CFM released the software, they had the idea of creating several ‘mascots’ to anthropomorphize the Miku personality, and it wasn’t long before a programmer named Yu Higuchi released a freeware application, MikuMikuDance (MMD), which allowed users to easily create 2D and 3D animations based on the these mascots. A huge fanbase rapidly grew around this concept, with thousands of users interacting on Nico Nico Douga (a kind of Japanese YouTube) to produce videos of Hatsune Miku performances. The phenomenal success of Miku has spawned a family of new Vocaloids, such as Rin and Len Kagamine, Megurine Luka, Gackpoid, Megpoid and numerous ‘fan-created Vocaloids like Neru Akita and Teto Kasane.

Here is a video of Miku’s more sophisticated sister Megurine Luka,2 singing ‘Just Be Friends’:

The live Miku concerts with the 12 foot tall all-singing all-dancing projections of the character avatars are a natural result of the extraordinary popularity of the Vocaloid characters and their music.

Now isn’t that a lot more interesting than the Huffington Post’s (and others, I might add) flippant dissing of this story as an oh-my-god-singers-are-going-to-be-replaced-by-holograms-bring-back-the-good-old-days piece of sensationalism? Their silly take on it does nothing more than expose their white-bread middle-American sensibilities, and make them look like the insular conservatives they really are. The Hatsune Miku phenomenon might be slightly oblique to Western sensibilities, but one thing is very clear – here are large groups of passionate music fans having a genuinely good time. What the hell is wrong with that?

And besides, the music was made by musicians, not robots, people. And it’s damn catchy.

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Thanks to Joey for the find.

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  1. You will notice here that I have used the correct forms of the words ‘hologram’ and ‘holograph’. You’d think journalists would take the time. []
  2. Megurine Luka is the first bilingual Vocaloid. Calm down Atlas – I said bilingual. []

The Guardian reports today the shock horror story of the decade – if you’re a dedicated ‘horrorcore’ hip-hop fan, anyway.

It turns out that the Insane Clown Posse – those rapper doyens of the crass, the violent and the sexist – known for such moving lyrics as:

I stab people, 4, 5 people everyday
I tried to see a shrink to stop that shit but it ain’t no FUCKing way

…and:

I grabbed her by her neck
And I bounced her off the walls
She said it was an accident and then apologized
But I still took my elbow and blackened both her eyes

…and:

If I was a king all bitches would blow me
Big bag piles of jewels for my homies
We would go to war and take everybody’s land
No clothes allowed for female citizens

…have, all this time, been Evangelical Christians.

My mind flip-flops between being flabbergasted and entirely unsurprised. Flabbergasted because I find it hard to believe that people who call themselves Christians can write these kinds of things, and then unsurprised because I guess I can. And it’s not that the Juggalo ringleaders have suddenly had a Road to Damascus moment, either – they say that they’ve been Christians all along.

Apparently, their music is all just an act, cunningly crafted to sneak up on all those unsuspecting fans of theirs and deliver the message of God under the cover of necrophilia, dismemberment, rape and murder. Not since the Spanish Inquisition has morality been so deeply confused.1

This is how Violent J (Joseph Bruce), one of the two figureheads of ICP, puts it:

To get attention, you have to speak their language. You have to interest them, gain their trust, talk to them and show you’re one of them. You’re a person from the street and speak of your experiences. Then at the end you can tell them God has helped me out like this and it might transfer over instead of just come straight out and just speak straight out of religion.

This was the same Violent J who was arrested on an aggravated battery charge after allegedly striking an audience member thirty times with his microphone at a concert in New Mexico. Apparently you need to physically show ‘them’ that you’re ‘one of them’ as well. That’s a slippery slope for which I wouldn’t want to attempt to mount a moral defense.

Recently, as part of their overt ‘coming out’ the Clowns released this video of their song Miracles, in which they apparently find everything miraculous, including UFOs, fog, and the Pyramids:2

It appears that they use the term miraculous here in a religious sense, rather than as hyperbole. In other words, they are rapping about all these ‘miracles’ as literal Works of God. The clue is the part of the lyric that says:

Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

Yep, it’s those evil scientists at it again. As one science blogger has put it, the video

…is not only dumb, but enthusiastically dumb, endorsing a ferocious breed of ignorance that can only be described as militant. The entire song is practically a tribute to not knowing things.

Indeed, in 1998 Spin magazine said that ICP were offensive “not for their obscenity, but for their stupidity” and after reading the Guardian interview I linked above, I am inclined to agree (there are some real clangers, but I’ll leave them for you to discover). In a manner that is the modus operandi of all the most blinkered fundamentalists, the ICP eschews any level of intellectuality or reason or knowledge in favour of simplistic, slack-jawed religious naiveté. What’s more, they seem baffled by the torrents of criticism they have received from the science community over their silly song. Violent J:

I figured most people would say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Insane Clown Posse could be deep like that.’ But instead it’s, ‘ICP said a giraffe is a miracle. Ha ha ha! What a bunch of idiots.’

Yeah, see, the problem is, Violent J, that your observations aren’t so much deep as breathtakingly banal…

Plant a little seed and nature grows
Niagara falls and the pyramids
Everything you believed in as kids
Fucking rainbows after it rains
there’s enough miracles here to blow your brains

… and, to be frank, it’s terrible music to boot – the rap in this song is possibly the worst I’ve ever heard. Take away the trademark in-your-face offensiveness and Insane Clown Posse just have nothing at all to offer.

As it stands, for all their ghetto posturing and murderous carnival grotesquerie, I say that the Insane Clown Posse are nothing more than Insipid Clown Pussies. It takes guts to look the universe squarely in the face and endure all the uncomfortable consequences of the realization of the measure of your insignificance.3 Religion, especially the brains-on-the-floor flavour of religion offered by Evangelical Christianity, is the ultimate avoidance of facing up to reality. It says, in no uncertain terms, that if you trust everything to God, all will be hunky dory. It’s the easiest of cop-outs for a difficult challenge. In this respect,4 then, it is less confronting to discover that the members of the Insane Clown Posse are Christians, than it would have been to have heard they were philosophers, atheists or scientists.

The cognitive dissonance is deeply disturbing.

  1. My observation here is that if this is true, then they are treating the people that buy their music with the utmost disrespect – firstly, they are trading on being something that they are not in order to disseminate some dubious moral agenda, and secondly they think their audience is stupid. Which may be true, but doesn’t that just smack of cynical exploitation?! []
  2. How magnets, the Pyramids, UFOs and ghosts fall into the category of Miracles Wrought By God is kinda hard to fathom… []
  3. Conversely, it takes no guts at all to beat up a woman, and it follows that to write a ‘song’ about doing so is the work of a very tiny soul indeed. Don’t spin me your ‘whatever it takes to get the Lord’s message through’ bullshit, you hypocrites. []
  4. …and possibly others, it has to be said – pardon my cynicism. []

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