Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Music and Alternate Interfaces

I dabble in music, sort of inspired in part by the likes of Brian Eno. I used to enjoy setting up audio "systems" where I was a participant, using a combination of cheap synthesizers, tape loops and overdubbing. Now I play guitar, record it and screw around with it in Garageband. I particularly like the "Voice Changer" plug in, combined with other effects. It kills my poor powerbook, but I do love Augustus Loop, which emulates a tape delay/loop unit. These devices are magical because of the decay effect that they provide; Robert Fripp uses two Revox tape decks to get the same effect.

For non-musicians, and perhaps traditional musicians, the sort of musical devices that are created for electronic composition and performance can seem quite other worldly. There are many devices that share characteristics with the Theremin such as the Photo-Theremin. The Alesis AirFX is something similar, where you feed it an audio signal, and by waving your hand over a sensor modify it in several different ways.

I have been a fan of the Suzuki QChords for some time. They are sort of like a autoharp, where you press keys and "strum" over a sensor. They were originally designed to teach children the basics of music, but the newer ones have midi out.

I remember having a discussion a while back with someone who felt that learning music was too hard; that it should be possible to create software that can do most of the work. I don't think I convinced them that not only was this an unnecessary thing, it is likely an unwanted thing. Playing with loops in Garage Band all them time gets quite boring.

While all of these tools simplify mechanical aspects of creating music, they still require work to master. The theremin is notorious for this -- it is a great toy, but to actually play music on it takes a bit of practice. However, the variability of the output from using these devices is what makes them engaging. It is a bit different every time. Ask any electronic musician about the evils of "quantitization", it sucks the soul out of a piano part. It is that little bit of variability in timing that makes it seem "natural". It's just a little bit of noise, a bit of dust.

So we are left with our musical devices, but it us that makes them go. Even when we look at compositions made up of nothing more that looped samples, it is our process of selection, not a piece of software, that makes it relevant for us. Even Eno's "systems" such as what was used in Discreet Music require some input to begin. We are the water for the mill.

I know that I am kind of meandering here, but I will come back to this again soon and try to make more sense.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Edit video online

Reading Bolther/Grusin's Remediation is at once a great reading experience and a opportunity to turn your world view into some sort of oppositional view for a brief while. The idea is quite infectious, that mediums combine and "remediate" each other; TV becomes more like the web, and the web expands out from text and still images into a experience that is not television -- something more and in my opinion much better.

I have spent a lot of time in YouTube, because I think they get it in a way that Google and some of the others (such as Veoh) don't get it; it is about a simple viewing experience enhanced with a social construct. It's pretty deep, I've written a paper on it for a course I'm taking, and I hope to publish it somewhere. It is close to offering the types of things that people might want in a future video sevice; the only thing that is missing now is ditching the web browser centric interface for a "10 foot" experience.

I talk a lot about how pervasive visual tools for contructing knowledge have become. Word processing is now something that doesn't live on your desktop, but is an application that lives in your browser -- Google has a word processor, Microsoft has Live Office, and there are a host of other simple word processing applications such as AjaxWrite. The folks behind Ajaxwrite continue to roll out web-based applications as a way to undermine Microsoft's move into this environment, but it is not clear to me that what they offer is a suitable replacement.

Eyespot is a online video editing and sharing environment. It has some aspects of YouTube, but offers the ability to mix and match content. "Editing" in this environment is essentially cuts-only editing, but given time I am sure that will change. However, the quality is not great, it is almost more of a technology showcase than a practical tool. But still, I am in favor of anything that makes this more approachable.

The mind-numbing truth is that we have always been visual thinkers, some more than others. Film and video were not invented by arbitrarily; it hooks into the way that our brains work. It is, to use a bad analogy, why Tetris is popular -- it uses a basic skill that we have, the ability to rotate objects in our head, and turns it into a game. Video editing combines the cultural (what is the proper way to tell a story, what is time, what is real) with the innate (we think in pictures).

Eyespot itself is not necessarily that important, but what it represents is important; that these once esoteric tools are becoming common as dirt. It is not the accessibility to the tools that is preventing us from embracing them and using them to construct knowledge, it is our attitude towards them. Education is not ready to deal with students that are heavily visual thinkers.

Everything has moved away from that; again I come back to the general ideas of "industrial revolution" thinking; repeatability, quality assurance, easily quantifiable knowledge, scaling. These goals are not consistent with this breed of learner. I will not call them a "new breed" because it is my strong belief that these people have always existed, what has changed is the opporunities they have to learn, and our attitude towards them. The schools of today and the near future do not embrace these students; they are considered abnormal -- borderline autistic, adhd, what have you. We give them medication to make them manageable, but we don't teach them. They have to teach themselves.