Monday, August 25, 2014

AV Preservation at the Library of Congress, Part II: "There is no average life span for a CD"

Same CD, different results. From the Library of Congress report discussed below.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about IRENE, a tool used by the Library of Congress to lift the audio from vinyl discs and wax cylinders without actually touching them. This week, NPR documented another research project of LOC's preservation arm: CD longevity research.

While CDs will last longer than magnetic tape media, many types of CDs are not built to last. To complicate preservation more, CDs (like other digital media) are hardware and software dependent (I'm sure many of you have noticed that many laptop computers do not even have CD drives in them any more). But laying the access problem aside, this study for the Library of Congress attempts to answer the questions: How long can the physical compact disc last before becoming corrupted? How well and it what way does the CD age? 

The short (and unfortunate) answer is this: it depends. There happens to be a wide range in the quality of CDs produced. Climate control and limiting use, however, does make a difference in increasing longevity. Click here to read the full report, or here to read the LOC summary. Obviously, more studies are needed. I was able to meet one of the people mentioned in the NPR article, Fenella France, as she told our tour group about this research, and I got to see in person the CDs shown above, both artificially aged to very different results. While CDs are more likely to become completely obsolete than vinyl, there are still vast stores of information that are only on CDs, and a huge part of some libraries' collections are on CD. In other words, these questions will only get more important.

Vocab: magnetic tape, compact disc, vinyl

Monday, August 18, 2014

"I guess the show's going on": album review of Nickel Creek: A Dotted Line

Image from Amazon

Well, they're back. I'll be the first to admit I didn't think this record would happen—at least not anytime soon. After various solo and group projects (including Sara Watkin's Sun Midnight Sun and various Punch Brothers' albums), Nickel Creek—surprise!—has returned from their hiatus with a new album and tour. Despite the success of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers and various other solo albums, he has yet to reach the popularity of Nickel Creek at their peak, suggesting that collaborating with Sean and Sara Watkins brings something out of Chris that appeals to a wider audience. I do think it shows some humility on Chris's part to take a step back and let other people have the spotlight after being the most successful soloist of the trio. I wrote recently about Nickel Creek's first three albums, the history behind them, and the term Newgrass with which they've been labeled, and today I'll review their new album, A Dotted Line. Can this album live up to the genius of the previous three albums?

For this album, Sean and Chris seem to share the bulk of the songwriting (all three are listed on the music credits for the original songs, but lyrics are attributed individually), though Sara did pen the lead single "Destination." Sean's songs are more in the tradition of classic bluegrass than Chris's, but even with the modern twists (like the ironic "21st of May", about a preacher proclaiming the date of the second coming), I think they are good enough to become classics. Chris' songs ("Rest of my Life," "Elsie," "You Don't Know What's Going On") are much less traditional than Sean's, but perhaps less experimental than Chris's recent work. "Rest of my Life" is a fitting start for the album, a song contemplating starting over after finishing something big. Although Sara Watkin's solo record showed that she is the least talented of the three creatively (and she takes a secondary role in creation here) her violin and vocal prowess (especially in the cover "Where is Love Now?") contribute greatly to the album.

"Elephant in the Corn" is classic Nickel Creek—taking the stylings of bluegrass and twisting them just enough that it's refreshing but still in the same genre. The song changes moods several of times, of course with with a languorous bass solo by Edgar Meyer. The title gives it away—instead of "Turkey in the Straw," this instrumental track features an exotic animal in a bluegrass setting. As fun as "Hayloft" is (and they seem to have the most fun doing other people's songs), I was disappointed that they turned to electronics for this cover, especially considering the group's previous successful forays into the acoustification of electronic music, though the electronics were mostly limited to one riff.

I think A Dotted Line is an apt title. While Nickel Creek continues to encircle bluegrass, keeping roots there, the dotted boarder allows other influences to get in and out. The album has the charm of bluegrass, but with more complexity and quirkiness. A Dotted Line has all the things we've come to expect from Nickel Creek: modern lyrics that twist bluegrass themes, interesting textures, unexpected chords, irregular phrase lengths, and complex forms. We can't predict what will happen in the song , but looking back after listening, we can tell they are tightly constructed.

Is this album on par with the other Nickel Creek albums? It took me a couple of listens to really get into it, and I don't think it has quite the charm, power, catchiness, or novelty of the previous records, but still I think it's a solid effort. All three are great vocalists AND instrumentalists, which is not something that happens much in groups, and they show off both here. None of the songs are throw-aways, and strangely many often get more interesting near their end. Mostly, it's great to hear these childhood friends making music again.

What did you think of the album?

Vocab: theme, texture, phrase

Monday, August 11, 2014

Stephen Foster's mega-hit songs, and why we hear them out of context

Did you ever learn the songs "Camptown Races," "Oh! Susanna, "Hard Times Come Around No More," or "Old Folks at Home"? If you live in the United States, or even anywhere else in the world, you've probably sung them many times. We still sing them all the time and teach them to our children, which is pretty amazing for songs whose composer, Stephen Foster, died 150 years ago.

Chances are, however, you'd didn't learn the original lyrics of these songs. That's because these songs, like most of the songs Steven Foster wrote, were written for blackface minstrel shows. These shows, the most popular form of American entertainment in the mid- to late 1800s, featured white performers putting on black makeup (called blackface) and acting as caricatures of African-Americans. If you are wondering if this was racist, yes it was. But it was so lucrative and pervasive that African-Americans would put on minstrel shows too, usually donning blackface themselves and acting out the caricatures. While much of the minstrel show was comedy routines and slapstick, music was an instrumental part of these shows, which were the forerunners of vaudeville or variety shows of the 20th century.

A 1900 example of blackface on a white actor.

What's interesting to me is that the majority of Americans today don't know that such shows existed, much less that they were very, very popular (and perhaps surprisingly more in the North than the South). For good reasons, we've given ourselves cultural amnesia.*

Back to the topic of original lyrics, the versions of minstrel songs we learn today have been scrubbed clean of the racism and "African-American" dialect in which they were originally written. Also, original subtitles such as "Ethiopian melody" have been removed. Originally, however, minstrel songs were sung by stock characters, much like in the Italian commedia dell'arte, acting out scenarios. These stock characters were often African-Americans, ignorant, carefree, and happy to do the work put in front of them by their masters. When thought about in this context, minstrel songs take on completely different meaning. For example, instead of being fun nonsense songs, "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown races" poke fun of the singer, who is seen as ridiculous, while "Hard Times Come Again No More" can be seen as even more poignant when seen from a slave perspective or a serious moment in the midst of comedy.

Spike Lee's film Bamboozled (2000) put blackface in a modern context

Now, I'm not advocating going back to racist attitudes or performances, nor am I advocating that Stephen Foster's songs should be banned because they are offensive (though many are, in their original form), but I do think it is good to look back and realize the original context a piece of art, why it became popular, and why it has continued to be popular. In the case of Stephen Foster's tunes, I think they continue to be popular because 1) the melodies are memorable and catchy, easy for children to learn but complicated enough to keep an adult's attention, 2) they convey what we see as old-timey "American" points of view, and 3) they were Western songs that adopted elements, however small, of African-American music, creating something new. Popular music as we know it today would probably be very different without the dominance and popularity of blackface minstrelsy and the style of songs that it produced.

Vocab: lyrics, minstrelsy, vaudeville, melody, commedia dell'arte

*Other well-known songs that came out of blackface minstrelsy include "Hello My Baby," "Old Joe Clark," "Shortin' Bread," and anything about Bill Bailey.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Looking back on WWI: Sting's "Children's Crusade"

Today, August 4, 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the United Kingdom entering World War I. While I've blogged recently about World War I music written during the war here and here, today I thought I'd mention a slightly more contemporary song about World War I: Sting's "Children's Crusade."

Written in 1985 for Sting's first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles, "Children's Crusade" has several guiding allusions. First, the allusion from the title: a reference to a (perhaps apocryphal) medieval event in which children were recruited to fight or be missionaries in the Middle East and instead were sold into slavery. Using this as a reference point, Sting cleverly compares this event of cultural memory to the millions who died in World War I, arguing that those soldiers in World Ward I also were young children sent to a horrible end only to benefit rich men ("pawns in the game are not victims of chance," "corpulent generals safe behind lines"). The second allusion is the poppy flower ("poppies for young men") which has become a symbol for the close of World War I and the remembrance of the dead. Sting, however, also uses the poppy as a symbol for rampant opium addiction in 1980s, which can also be characterized as a campaign for rich people that valued personal wealth over human life.

Musically, the song broadcasts its tone starting with a verse in a minor key. The highlight, however, is the major-key chorus. The chorus bursts into being with a three-note descending motive taken from the verse (now translated into a minor key), accompanied by a saxophone imitating a triumphant military bugle call. While initially this change of musical tone corresponds with the lyrics ("the children of England would never be slaves"), the triumphant tone turns into sarcasm as the chorus wears on ("they're trapped on the wire, and dying in waves / the flower of England face down in the mud"). The children of England would never be slaves, yet they have been made slaves and are suffering.

Curiously, however, Sting does not make the modern opium addiction connection until late in the song. While I think that the lengthy saxophone solo in the middle captures the anxiety of war with its long crescendo and build-up, the final verse about the opium seems almost an afterthought instead of the point of the song, especially as the song ends strangely on the verse instead of the chorus. Perhaps Sting finishes the song with the unsettling minor key and not the triumphant, sarcastic chorus on purpose, however, to leave the listeners thinking about the problematic cases presented.

Thirty years after it was written, I think "Children's Crusade" continues to be an effective tool to cast light on the root causes of some of the atrocities that still  happen today. From the drug cartels in Mexico and South America to rampant corruption in India to continued use of slaves (especially in the sex industry) to low minimum wages here in the U.S., there are still many things in the world that are mostly about rich people getting richer at the expense of people who aren't them and don't have much choice in the matter. And sometimes, as in the chorus of "Children's Crusade," these things are trumpeted and spun as positive, which makes them even harder to spot and correct.

Vocab: minor, major, chorus, verse, motive, crescendo