Thursday, December 29, 2005

RockBox Firmware Enhances iRiver Recorders

Though I don't own one of these devices, I thought it would be good to post my summary of the state of iRiver software here, since I have been covering comparable consumer recording devices. I hope you find this useful.

RockBox is open source replacement software for that which comes with various hard disk MP3 players. Up until recently this wasn't of real interest to those who want to do recording. But now they have a release ready for the iRiver recorders, which opens up the possibility of high quality recording on those devices.

The iRiver iHP-120 is a 20GB hard disk player/recorder which supports MP3, WMA and Ogg files. It has siblings in the iHP-110 and iHP-140 (no prize for guessing their capacities). It has both analogue and digital I/O rated at 96 dB SNR and 2.5V plug-in power for small condenser mics. The battery is good for 4 hours of WAV recording, and the device does a soft shutdown when the battery expires, so you don't lose your file. So far so good; this sounds like a decent replacement for a minidisc recorder.

Unfortunately the original firmware made it a less than ideal solution. Though it has a radio there was no way to record from it. Likewise there is no timer recording. WAV file recording is limited to 795MB (~75min) in a single file. Worse yet, there is no on-the-fly record level adjustment and a small recording glitch occurs about every 30 seconds, as the hard drive spins up. This adds a noise spike to the recorded signal which makes the recordings unsuitable for precise tasks.

RockBox looks to expand the capabilities and remove the limitations. It is not easy to track the changes from the website, since easy documentation is not the forte of the crew working on the project.

However at this point it seems that WAV recording at 44.1 KHz is supported from mic/line-in and the radio with full monitoring. Automatic time and byte splitting is possible to get around the file size limitation (which has been increased to 2 GB in any case).

Playback enhancements include the addition of FLAC and Wavpack CODECS, auto-crossfading of tracks, and support for gapless playback of MP3 files encoded with LAME. The peak meter has been improved and now works in dB scale.

All-on-all this looks like a great update to an already good piece of hardware. However, since these models have been superseded by the 3xx series, you may have to find units on the after-market (eg: EBay). And in answer to the next obvious question, RockBox is also developing firmware for that newer line of units.

There is a wiki page with installation instructions. There is also a helpful article on MisticRiver, the iRiver user site, which has special fora for RockBox.
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Dublin Night Photos

These photos were taken 21 September in Dublin. My tiny little camera takes great pictures at night. Or maybe this particular aesthetic just appeals to me.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Fifth Lot of Funny Things

Here again is a listing of twelve hilarious sites: some intentionally, some not, some the work of crackpots, some the work of journalists, with one that has gone to that big bit bucket in the sky. Plus a reminder for the young that, believe it or not, Woody Allen was once amusing.

Contains the phrase "fully indemnify little girls from possible legal action". Go!

I heart you. Go!

"He'd like it back," Mr. Bradshaw said. Go!

I knew someone would find something positive to do with New York City. Go!

Donkey killed for film "according to Swedish law". Go!

The Painstation is perfect for those who actually want to feel pain while gaming. Somehow I think this has a limited market. Need I say it was developed by Germans? (Joke! Joke! Some of my best friends, etc. etc.) Go!

It's just a meme I felt compelled to transmit. Go!

I only wish web sites were actually like this. I don't often include posts from obvious joke sites, but exceptions must sometimes be made for the good of the nation. And no, I do not know which nation. Go!

This week's missing in action URL is the verbatim transcripts of a particular stupid secondary school teacher... apparently so stupid that the reporting student could hardly keep up with their inanities. That's exactly how I remember school.

Because we were too stupid to figure this out for ourselves. Go!

Best zombie movie double bill Dawn Of The Dead and Passion Of The Christ. Could offend. Go!

Hit me Jesus, one more time. A classic, well before Mel Gibson turned his attentions to this area. Go!

Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage.
-- Woody Allen

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Review of Aerial by Kate Bush

I don't write many record reviews anymore. But sometimes I still enjoy dancing about architecture, even if Mr. Zappa disapproves. Being unsure as to whether I should embark on such a venture, I flipped a coin. It came up heads. So heads, we're dancing.

What strikes me first about Aerial is how the mainstream "critics", if that is even the correct term, have been falling over themselves to award the album plaudits. Even some old-time punks have joined this popular bandwagon, though I remember them according KT far less acclaim back in the days of her first four records. In fact, they could be damned nasty. I'm not sure why the newfound respect. Longevity? Motherhood?

You could hardly avoid Kate Bush back in the eighties. In those heady days, she would issue songs with some regularity. Not all of these releases were terribly exciting in retrospect. The sophomore release, Lionheart, was a collection of often twee second-rate tunes left over from The Kick Inside, which was a stunning debut for both the depth of song writing (from a girl as young as 13 at the time) and the vocal presentation. Orchestration and arrangements were sometimes bog-standard, but certainly not inappropriate. Attempts at a more "rock" sound were embarrassing unless you really were fond of women in brightly-coloured leg-warmers screaming to guitar posturings.

But back then a good number of listeners were indeed fond. Strange times!

Never For Ever extended Bush's palette through use of synthesiser, which seemed to suit her ever-more-arch conceptual songs. I still rather like the theatrical tunes like "Army Dreamers" and "Breathing". The moment at the end of the video for this single is chilling.

But it took until The Dreaming for me to decide she was truly an artist of standing. Actually, it took until the lead-off single, released much earlier in a different version. "Sat In Your Lap" came from a planet unlike any celestial bodies she had previously occupied. "Kate's got rhythm!" went up the cry, and what a strange rhythm it was.

I fell in love with the album. Dark, textured, less fey, with a maturity and complexity that today still sounds grand. "Night of the Swallow", "Houdini", and "Suspended in Gaffa" bring with them bone-crushing emotion and an intensity of vision that is almost unparalleled.

By the time Hounds of Love was released, everyone was tuned in. Displaying a lighter sound for the most part, it nonetheless extended her music into new areas of storytelling with the side-long Ninth Wave. And it extended the pop charts to fit the exultant sway of "Running Up That Hill", the only song I can think of that's in march time. The b-sides were brilliant, the videos were sexy (Donald Sutherland!), Kate was beautiful, and everyone could agree that they were in the presence of a musical goddess.

The Sensual World was a huge disappointment, only the title single being any good at all, in a kind of middle-of-the-road way. We had previously read that Kate respected Elton John but now her music was starting to show it. The Red Shoes was an album so dire that I did not even buy it. I mean, Prince? Come on.

So for me it's been far more than twelve years waiting for a KT album I could like. Not that I have been waiting... I've moved on. But a new record in so long makes one at least curious. So let's start with disk one, track one.

I'm not sure why "King of the Mountain" should be a single, or why she has chosen to sing it in such a small voice that mumbles the lyrics. The song builds in a nonedescript way but eventually goes nowhere, taking almost five minutes to do so. Where's the melody? Where's the hook? Why is the skanky groove so, so... white?

"How To Be Invisible" and "Joanni" try to be somewhat groovy, but the guitar/bass interplay is muted and uninspiring. These really need to be mixed like rock songs, but for that they'd need to be played that way in the first place. Then they might have some power, some impact. Though why we need more half-baked lyrics about Joan of Arc I don't know. OMD has already done that -- twice!

It's a wonderful conceit to recite the digits of "Pi" and get a song out of it, but the music verges on outright boring. The soundtrack to the film of the same name was filled with compelling electronic dissonances that put this to shame fifteen times over. The less said about the precious "Bertie" the better. Except that it plays even more like a joke in Ireland than anywhere else, thanks to it corresponding to the name of our political leader.

That leaves us with two songs on the first disc (entitled A Sea of Honey). These are based on the piano music with which Kate started her career, and are the most successful entries here. "Mrs. Bartolozzi" is about doing the washing; it's evocative, silly, and even sexy. However, can I go out on a really long limb here and say that I don't much like the vocal performance? "A Coral Room" shares the production problem of the rest of the disk, being far too smooth and drenched in the wrong reverb setting. But it's a beautiful piece that only seems less interesting in comparison to just about any decent Tori Amos song. Is that sacrilegious enough? Or is it fair to note when the pupils have outdone their teachers?

The second disk, A Sky of Honey is musically based on bird song, with some rather clever imitative vocals that turn the calls into words. If there were fewer banal lyrics, if Rolf Harris had been kept to circular breathing exercises, and if someone else had produced it, then it could have been a decent record.

I actually quite like the opening "Prelude" and "Prologue" (what, no "Intro" as well?), though how I wish Eberhard Weber had been allowed to cut loose. "An Architect's Dream" is pure banality. Everything else is "Somewhere In Between", an appropriate song title if ever there was one. This CD is all a big "somewhere" without enough place, enough definition, enough life. "Nocturn/Aerial" almost gets going, but the dynamics have been smoothed into nothingness. And together it lasts sixteen minutes, for goodness sake!

My favourite track here is "Aerial Tal" and, no, that's not just me being perverse. Kate imitating bird song is both playful, clever, and new in a way that nothing else here is. The track is over in a minute. Then it's back to the ho-hum, the humdrum, the sigh and the hum. (Only not as good as I just made it sound with that last sentence.)

In conclusion: Aerial contains uninspired playing, no decent grooves, almost zero energy level, and not one memorable melody. It inhabits a very comfortable KT-type zone that brings back fond memories of much better recordings. There is something compelling here trying to break free but it is not allowed to do so. A big blanket labelled "safe" has been draped over the proceedings.

Give me the master tapes and I think I might just be able to rescue it. (You think I am kidding, but I am not.)

I should mention that while the cover is boring, the inside gatefold photo is very nice. Washing on the line turning into birds. Lovely.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

An Introduction To Sound Art

On 9 Friday 2005 at 2pm I presented a seminar on sound art at the University of Brighton. About eight students took part; this was a perfect number, as we could sit in a circle in the smallish room, with the lights dimmed to a comfortable level, listening to a variety of sounds. Though most had a basic education in the topic, and recognised the people and books mentioned, they had generally not had the opportunity to hear works associated with those names. This was an oversight soon rectified!

Because I was present in Brighton as a poet, I focused somewhat on language-based pieces. I discussed some of my own works towards the end of the seminar, and was sure to include other Canadian artists. For fun I played some of the phonography pieces before telling people what they were listening to, so we could play a sort of guessing game.

Given that people in this visual age don't often take the time to just sit and listen, this was a rare opportunity. I thank the participants for their patience, Conall Gleeson of the School of Arts and Communication for facilitating the session, and John Davies, coordinator of The South, for inviting me to their poetry festival.

What follows is a outline of the seminar, with links to further resources.

Luigi Russolo
Italian futurist painter and composer, lived 1885-1947. In 1913 published "The Art of Noises". In the same year he performed a concert using his invented instruments, called intonarumori ("intoners" or "noise machines"). Specifically, he had arrayed 3 buzzers, 2 gurglers, 2 bursters, 1 shatterer, 1 thunderer, 1 shriller, 3 whistlers, 1 snorter, and 2 rustlers. Unfortunately, none of these survived WWII. Despite upsetting many listeners with his avant-garde stance, he was also admired by such composers as Stravinsky and Ravel. Here follows an excerpt from "The Art of Noises", available in full as a PDF at the absolutely fabulous UbuWeb.

[N]ature is normally silent, except for storms, hurricanes, avalanches, cascades and some exceptional telluric movements. This is why man was thoroughly amazed by the first sounds he obtained out of a hole in reeds or a stretched string....

First of all, musical art looked for the soft and limpid purity of sound. Then it amalgamated different sounds, intent upon caressing the ear with suave harmonies. Nowadays musical art aims at the shrillest, strangest and most dissonant amalgams of sound. Thus we are approaching noise-sound. This revolution of music is paralleled by the increasing proliferation of machinery sharing in human labor. In the pounding atmosphere of great cities as well as in the formerly silent countryside, machines create today such a large number of varied noises that pure sound, with its littleness and its monotony, now fails to arouse any emotion.

Fillippo Tomasso Marinetti
Wrote the Futurist Manifesto, first published in "Le Figaro". The sound poem "La Battaglia di Adrianopoli" was, according to Russolo, written in the Bulgarian trenches. A brilliant version was recorded by Marinetti (1876-1944) in 1935. This and the following two pieces were made available in 1988 as part of Tellus magazine issue 21, "Audio By Visual Artists".

Antonio Russolo
The brother of Luigi Russolo and a Futurist composer. "Corale & Serenata" is from 1924 and illustrates a mix of traditional and non-traditional instruments.

Kurt Schwitters
Infamous Dada artist whose classic "Die Sonate in Urlauten" (1919-32) is often interpreted even by contemporary artists.

The Art of Noise
Taking their name from Russolo's book, this pop group leveraged sampling technology to create compositions influenced by everything from musique concrete to hip-hop. Their debut EP, Into Battle With The Art of Noise, appeared in September 1983 on the house record label ZTT (Zang Tumb Tumb, a phrase taken from Marinetti's poem above).

Though their faces were never seen, the original group was made up of classically trained composer and musician Anne Dudley, keyboard player J. J. Jeczalik, and producer Trevor Horn (famous at the time for prog rock group Yes). Journalist Paul Morley was considered the fourth member, though his activities were mostly limited to pillaging intellectuals for quotes to adorn the record sleeves. The excerpt from "Paranoimia" includes a dripping tap as percussion and processed voice as melodic instrument. This version from the 1985 album In Visible Silence does not include the voice of Max Headroom which propelled the single version into the charts.

You can hear some samples.

R. Murray Schafer
Born in Sarnia, Ontario in 1933, Schafer studied in Canada as well as at the Royal Schools of Music and the Royal Conservatory of Music. In 1977 he wrote the pivotal book The Tuning of the World, following on earlier pamphlets like The New Soundscape. To implement his ideas, he founded the World Soundscape Project. Schafer is an important link between the "classical" tradition and sound art.

The following quote explicates his term "schizophonia":

We have split the sound form the maker of the sound. Sounds have been torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence. Vocal sound, for instance, is no longer tied to a hole in the head but is free to issue from anywhere in the landscape.

Glenn Gould
Canadian pianist (1932–1982) well known for his recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach and his rather eccentric behaviour. He gave up live performances in 1964, but continued to produce powerful interpretations of the repertoire. Less famous are his radio documentaries, produced through his long association with the CBC. The Solitude Trilogy (The Idea of North, The Latecomers, The Quiet in the Land) used a technique of overlapping voices executed with great attention to the natural rhythm of the sentence, tone of voice, and content. Gould called this "contrapuntal radio". An article on The Idea of North can be read while listening to some streaming audio, which unfortunately is in the nasty proprietary RealAudio format. Maybe better to check out some of his other work at UbuWeb.

John Cage
A follower of Zen Buddhism and practitioner of chance-based composition, Cage (1912-1992) is famous for the recital piece 4:33, premiered by David Tudor in 1952. Cage's book Silence is essential reading, but following its title we will say nothing more about Cage here.

Hildegard Westerkamp
Born in Germany, Westerkamp has been in Canada since the sixties and is strongly associated with the landscape of that country, due to pieces like "Beneath the Forest Floor", which recreates for our ears the old growth forests of British Columbia. She joined Schafer's World Soundscape Project, lectured at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, and was a key member of Vancouver Co-operative Radio. Her works include radiophonics, phonography, and electro-acoustic composition, combining natural sounds with people, music, poetry, etc. A variety of her recordings can be streamed from the DIFFUSION i M├ęDIA site.

Annea Lockwood
Lockwood works similarly in compositional phonography. Born in New Zealand, she has worked from the USA since 1973, primarily at Vassar College. Her piece "A Sound Map of the Hudson River" (1982) shows a particular affinity for place and environment.

Quiet American
A phonographer since a trip to Vietnam in 1998, this artist hosts an impressive site that contains the One Minute Vacations, short glimpses into other places and times. I recommend setting aside a particular time of the day and listening to one of these per diem until they are exhausted. Meditation is optional!

The next two selections are One Minute Vacations.

Albert Casais
Field recording of a peach tree swaying in the wind of Bayonne, New Jersey.

Dr. Frank Veit
Field recording of dolphins (with shrimp providing background noises) in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aqaba.

Stephen P. McGreevy
High-energy electrons are continuously entering the Van Allen radiation belts of the magnetosphere surrounding the Earth. Their traces show up in ELF/VLF radio spectrum, which corresponds to the audible range of 300 Hz to 11 kHz. Their association with the visual spectacle known as the aurora gives this phenomenon the name "auroral chorus". Stephen P. McGreevy, from California, has released several albums under this name. The example I played was recorded 24 August 1996 at 16:00 UT in Grass River Provincial Park, Manitoba, at a latitude of 54 degrees N.

escalation 372
"Deep Shelter Mentality" is a track created entirely by software synthesis, but which nonetheless bears a resemblance both to the natural recordings of the aurora and dolphins. It is taken from the 2004 limited edition release of Planet Earth Vs. The Plasma Monster, a CD which pays homage to H.G. Wells, kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movies), and the post-apocalyptic zeitgeist evident in the world since the destruction of the NYC World Trade Center.

unknown artist
A satellite transmission that could instead be a piece of musique concrete or some post-punk synth band on an off day.

Lincolnshire Poacher
This recording demonstrates the shortwave phenomenon known as a "numbers station", an endless transmission of numbers or phonetic alphabet (sometimes broken up by music or strange electronic sounds) that are presumed to be encoded transmissions from secret service agencies to their spies in the field. This is from MI5. The entire four CD Conet Project is available for download. You can read more about these oddities of the airwaves on sites like Simon Mason's.

escalation 721
"Anamnesia Part 4" is part of an unreleased project that decomposes the word "memory" into many mangled, twisted forms. In this case granular synthesis is used to cut the sound into thousands of discrete temporal units. Rather than reassemble them smoothly, the glitches are allowed to remain. Sometimes it is the space between sound that makes meaning. Want to listen?

escalation 746
"Instrument Approach" is from the 2005 project Control Tower Sound, which began as a live electro-acoustic improvisation on 5 August 2005. Subsequently, recordings were made to reproduce this performance, and these have been assembled into a (so far) unreleased CD. An important component in this project were recordings of Air Traffic Controllers. Here the spaces between the controllers' voices have been exaggerated into a drone that sounds peculiarly like the drone of the aircraft engines themselves. For more on this project, have a look at the articles in the soundscapes category.

escalation 746
"What Do They Call It, Radar?" was recorded March 1992 from a radio call-in show on the topic of life after death. The tape punch-in method of W.S. Burroughs was used in a pure fashion to create a collage beyond conscious control. "When you cut into the present, the future leaks through." Available on the limited edition 1999 CD Device for the Transmission of Electrical Energy Through Air

escalation 746
"wave, particle, falling leaves" is an installation which premiered 28 May 2005 at the Framemaker's Symposium, Limerick, Ireland. It requires two sets of independently controlled stereo speakers and a room of particular size (which is to say, fairly small). Because I did not have four audio channels available at the seminar, I presented just stereo sound (a compromise I rather regret). Again the human voice is the source material, but this time a sung female voice provides phonemes that are processed so as to play with the boundary between language and non-language, music and non-music. The piece may at first sound algorithmically generated, but is in fact improvised at the computer, enhancing the "human" and "musical" dimensions of the result.

and so on...
There are many other resources on the web. You might wish to listen to Far Afield: A Webbed Hand Compilation, check out the phonography mailing list, visit the Acoustic Ecology Institute, read the articles at The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, or investigate The Quiet American's list of links, just for a start.
Thursday, December 01, 2005

Brighton Poetry & Book Festival

Update: There is now a full page on the festival with a picture of yours truly. The press release has been changed.

I'm off to Brighton, UK next Thursday, and will be staying 8-10 December as part the Brighton Poetry & Book Festival 2005. This is organised by John Davies (better known to some as Shedman). More info can be found on the website of The South and the press release follows. I will also be conducting a seminar on sound art at the University of Brighton on Friday.

BAD LANGUAGE: Brighton Poetry & Book Festival 2005

Open Days @ Brighton Writers’ Centre
49 Grand Parade Brighton BN2 9QA
Monday 5 December to Friday 9 December 2005

Brighton Writers’ Centre will be holding Open Days when you can come and see the building, and meet poets and writers who will be dropping by. From Thursday 8-Friday 9 you may be able to meet up with Ciaran O’Driscoll, Mark Whelan and Robin Parmar, some of the poets from Limerick who have come over especially for the festival.

You’ll be able to see examples of some of the work in progress on a project about the Centre by Interior Architecture students at the University of Brighton. You’ll also be able to take part in impromptu workshops and discussions, and see examples of work from THE SOUTH’s recent projects.

Home to THE SOUTH, QueenSpark Books, Waterloo Press, Pighog Press, Club 94, and Survivors Poetry Brighton, Brighton Writers Centre is located in the emerging Cultural Quarter of Brighton, near The Jubilee Library, The Laines, and the beach. With offices and workshop rooms, Brighton Writers’ Centre provides a focal point for writers, publishers, agents, promoters and readers in the city.

For more information contact:
John Davies
Brighton Writers' Centre
49 Grand Parade
Brighton BN2 9QA
07810 272791
Literature with a new direction
Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Fourth Funny Thing List

In today's installment we have sheep, pigeons, fish, and other unfortunates. Because animals are so funny. Plus warnings about how the electrons in our water, or the planet beneath our feet, may not be rotating as we expect. So strap yourself in and go clicky clicky.

Sheep pine for absent friends and prefer happy, smiley people. Well, I always thought so. With mint sauce. Go!

Nicholas Gurewitch draws The Perry Bible Fellowship, which is deliberately funny. Go!

Rotation stoppage is now imminent. Only a handful of you -- repeat, a few -- will understand this. The Polar Shift Preparedness site adopts a strangely hostile tone. Go!

This auto-navigator recommends a trip by way of England to get around Norway. Go!

If you can't find pigeons, you may use chickens. Go!

"RAF planned kamikaze anthrax pigeon squadron." Developed by an RAF "wing commander", naturally. And exactly what is up with this pigeon tendency in today's news? Go!

The electrons in this mug take on a positive left spin. And if you believe that... Go!

The Unfortunate Animal of the Month Club is not quite as sick as it sounds. Or is it? Go!

Why God invented Flash. For dancing. Go!

Jet-powered wheelchair a surprise for mother-in-law. As well it might. Go!

The one that got away this time is an EBay auction for a signed... breast implant.

Soon they won't let fish on planes. Go!

There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?
-- Woody Allen