Heavy metal spec fic

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2010

Every now and again, my two great loves – loud guitar music and speculative fiction – collide in interesting ways. Witness io9’s piece on the latest album by Texan retro-metallers The Sword, which is a concept album of the old school, based on an unpublished story written by frontman J D Cronise. (The Sword, incidentally, are a superb live act; if you’ve any love for heavy metal whatsoever, be sure to go see them play if you get the chance.)

Science fiction and rock music have always been connected to some degree, but in my experience people tend to assume that their explicit linkage died off around the same time as the dinosaurs of the original Seventies progressive movement. (The heavier types of metal, largely due to the formative work of the mighty Black Sabbath, have tended to cleave to imagery that is more easily classified as horror or “dark fantasy”… always assuming that one can come to any sort of universally-agreeable definition of what either of those terms actually mean.) As mentioned a while ago, Jason Heller had a great essay at Clarkesworld that considered a whole batch of rock albums as science fiction texts, and it neatly puts the lie to the notion of an epoch of disconnection between the two spheres (though I’d argue that Heller ventures way outside the confines of what I’d define as “rock”, though that’s far less a judgement of value than one of aesthetics on my part.)

And out in the musical hinterlands, science fiction and rock music are still finding ways to connect to each other – something I’m fortunate enough to be well-placed to observe in my capacity as an independent reviewer of (often extremely) marginal musics. For example, only a few days back I was listening to a band called Constants, whose final song on their second album was entitled “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” (PKD titles are one of the most consistent reference points for modern bands, in my experience).

Then there’s the mighty Clutch, whose bluesy roadhouse-rawk references sf ideas and texts with almost frivolous abandon when the mood takes them (try “Escape From The Prison Planet“, or “The Rapture of Riddley Walker“, if you can cope with the horrible bandwidth and quality of live footage on YouTube). And I never tire of extolling the virtues of Manchester’s very own Amplifier, who have the rare knack of catching the epic scale and sensawunda of space opera in their sprawling and slightly proggy compositions – in fact, when I guested at Philip Palmer’s blog a while ago, I plucked out their majestic “UFOs” for appreciation by a wider audience. Go have a listen.

Music, after all, is another form of storytelling (and arguably a much older one than the novel and short story), so it should come as no surprise that the ideas and imagery of science fiction appear there, too. What sf-nal musics are lurking on your Generic Digital Music Playback Device, rock or otherwise? Call ’em out in the comments; maybe we’ll all find something fresh to listen to. 🙂


Hey, DJ – draw me a beat!

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2010

File under “kinda cool intersection of music and technology”, and tag with “more lo-fi than it initially appears”: Wired UK flags up Swedish DJ and producer Daniel Skoglund, who has developed a way of creating weird beats and noises by drawing lines with a graphite pencil.

… he draws his rhythms onto paper, which is mounted on a turntable and then read by a needle. […] Graphite conducts electricity, so changes in the conductivity of the graphite will generate different sounds — bloops, blips and whistles.

As a result, Skoglund can draw lines that a rotating arm passes over, controlling the BPM of the music by changing the speed at which the arm rotates. When he performs live, he uses three heads, but the motion of each head over the graphite wears it away after a while, resulting in a performance that changes over time. No word on what happens he’s not paying attention and the needle collides with the pencil.

You wanna hear the results? Of course you do!


Computerising the music critics

Paul Raven @ 15-06-2010

Keeping with today’s vague (and completely unplanned) theme of critical assessments of cultural product, here’s a piece at New Scientist that looks at attempts to create a kind of expert system for music criticism and taxonomy. Well, OK – they’re actually trying to build recommendation engines, but in The Future that’s all a meatbag music critic/curator will really be, AMIRITE*?

So, there’s the melody analysis approach:

Barrington is building software that can analyse a piece of music and distil information about it that may be useful for software trying to compile a playlist. With this information, the software can assign the music a genre or even give it descriptions which may appear more subjective, such as whether or not a track is “funky”, he says.

Before any software can recommend music in this way, it needs to be capable of understanding what distinguishes one genre of music from another. Early approaches to this problem used tricks employed in speech recognition technology. One of these is the so-called mel-frequency cepstral coefficients (MFCC) approach, which breaks down audio into short chunks, then uses an algorithm known as a fast Fourier transform to represent each chunk as a sum of sine waves of different frequency and amplitude.

And then the rhythm analysis approach (which, not entirely surprisingly, comes from a Brazilian university):

Unlike melody, rhythm is potentially a useful way for computers to find a song’s genre, da F. Costa says, because it is simple to extract and is independent of instruments or vocals. Previous efforts to analyse rhythm tended to focus on the duration of notes, such as quarter or eighth-notes (crotchets or quavers), and would look for groups and patterns that were characteristic of a given style. Da F. Costa reasoned that musical style might be better pinpointed by focusing on the probability of pairs of notes of given durations occurring together. For example, one style of music might favour a quarter note being followed by another quarter note, while another genre would favour a quarter note being succeeded by an eighth note.

But there’s a problem with this taxonomy-by-analysis approach:

Barrington, however, believes that assigning genres to entire tracks suffers from what he calls the Bohemian Rhapsody problem, after the 1975 song by Queen which progresses from mellow piano introduction to blistering guitar solo to cod operetta. “For some songs it just doesn’t make sense to say ‘this is a rock song’ or ‘this is a pop song’,” he says.

(Now, doesn’t that remind you of the endless debates over whether a book is science fiction or not? A piece of music can partake of ‘rockness’ and ‘popness’ at the same time, and in varying degrees; I’ve long argued that ‘science fiction’ is an aesthetic which can partaken of by a book, rather than a condition that a book either has or doesn’t have, but it’s not an argument that has made a great deal of impact.)

This analyses of music are a fascinating intellectual exercise, certainly, but I’m not sure that these methods are ever going to be any more successful at taxonomy and recommendation than user-contributed rating and tagging systems… and they’ll certainly never be as efficient in terms of resources expended. And they’ll never be able to assess that most nebulous and subjective of properties, quality

… or will they?

[ * Having just typed this rather flippantly, I am by no means certain that the future role of the critic/curator will be primarily one of recommendation. Will the open playing field offer more opportunity for in-depth criticism that people actually read and engage with for its own sake, or will it devolve into a Klausner-hive of “if you like (X), you’re gonna love (Y)”? ]


A sci-fi rock’n’roll odyssey at Clarkesworld

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2010

Long-term readers of this here site are probably aware that my other huge cultural obsession (besides science fiction literature, natch) is rock music, and that I’ve spent some amount of time in the last few years on drawing comparisons and connections between the two scenes.

So imagine my joy (if you will) when I saw that this month’s issue of Clarkesworld contains an article by Jason Heller that traces the history of science fictional futurism and narrative through the canon of rock music since Bowie’s “Space Oddity”! And better still (because this is the multimedia information super-content-highway-tubes, kids) it’s full of embedded video so you can actually hear and see what he’s on about.

Not for the first time (though almost always at moments when I have more than enough pressing demands on my time), I find myself thinking that there’s enough scope for me to write a non-fiction book on the cross-pollination of sf/f/h and rock music… anyone want to crowdfund me to spend a year on that? Maybe Heller would like to co-write… *opens email client*


Content is a public good: the abundance economics of digital media

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2010

In the absence of Charlie Stross (who is out in Japan, the fortunate devil), guest posts are appearing on his blog… and today’s is a little something different, namely a 101 guide to the economics of digital media from one Milena Popova:

So, to recap, for pure private goods, the market is both a practical and efficient way of allocating resources, and that’s what we do most of the time. As soon as we move away from the pure private good paradigm, either because our good is non-rival or non-excludable or both, the market ceases to look like a good idea. In practice, what happens is that we try to use technical and/or legislative means to help us approximate private goods when dealing with any type of not purely private good. We can, for instance, make it a crime to overfish the seas, or put fences around our golf course to stop people from overrunning it without paying; we can make it a crime not to pay the tax that contributes to running the armed forces. (Oh and, incidentally, using a public-type good without paying your dues is called “free-riding”. It’s something economists are obsessed with stopping.)

Okay, enough with the theory. Let’s look at content in practice. Remember that little clip at the start of your legally purchased DVD that delays your enjoyment of the film you’ve paid to see to tell you about how you wouldn’t steal a handbag and thus should not steal a movie either? If you’ve been paying attention you should by now have spotted that these two things (the handbag and the movie) are not alike. If I steal a handbag it stops you from having it; if I download a movie from Piratebay, there is nothing that stops you from enjoying that same movie (either by getting it from Piratebay yourself or by forking out 20 quid at HMV or a fiver at Tesco’s). In other words, while handbags are rival, movies aren’t.

Go read the whole thing; valuable straight-talking information.

And while we’re talking economics and new paradigms of consumption and ownership, here’s a post that suggests (rather plausibly) that a whole new generation of lawyers will be needed in a world where sharing and cooperation among communities becomes a stronger economic force [via Chairman Bruce]:

The evolving nature of our transactions has created the need for a new area of law practice. We are entering an age of innovative transactions, collaborative transactions, crowd transactions, micro-transactions, sharing transactions – transactions that the legal field hasn’t caught up with, like: Bartering. Sharing. Cooperatives. Buying clubs. Community currencies. Time banks. Microlending. Crowdsourcing. Crowdfunding. Open source. Community supported agriculture. Fair trade. Consensus decision-making. Cohousing. Intentional Communities. Community Gardens. Copyleft.

At present, there is not much literature explaining the legal implications of these kinds of transactions. To those of us who have made this our area of practice, many of the legal questions in this new field sit unanswered on our giant to-do lists. One-by-one, client-by-client, we are making headway. As the ground swells with people adopting more sharing and cooperative work and lifestyles, we can look forward to a growing body of law and literature on the subject.

At the same time, the answers will never be clear cut, and lines we have grown accustomed to will be increasingly blurred.

Until we evolve a new set of legal definitions, we’ll dance uncertainly around the lines between “income” and “gifts,” between “own” and “rent,” between “employees” and “volunteers,” between “work” and “hobby,” between “nonprofit” and “for-profit,” between “invest” and “donate,” and so on. Our clients may have outside-the-box livelihoods and organizations, but it’ll still be the job of lawyers to help them fit into boxes that are traditional enough to comply with the law.

Well, there goes my naive hope for a future where there are no lawyers at all. Guess we really do take the lord of the flies with us everywhere we go, after all… 😉


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