Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rising narcissism in popular song lyrics?

April 25, 2011
A Generation’s Vanity, Heard Through Lyrics

A couple of years ago, as his fellow psychologists debated whether narcissism was increasing, Nathan DeWall heard Rivers Cuomo singing to a familiar 19th-century melody. Mr. Cuomo, the lead singer and guitarist for the rock band Weezer, billed the song as “Variations on a Shaker Hymn.”

Where 19th-century Shakers had sung “ ’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,” Mr. Cuomo offered his own lyrics: “I’m the meanest in the place, step up, I’ll mess with your face.” Instead of the Shaker message of love and humility, Mr. Cuomo sang over and over, “I’m the greatest man that ever lived.”

The refrain got Dr. DeWall wondering: “Who would actually sing that aloud?” Mr. Cuomo may have been parodying the grandiosity of other singers — but then, why was there so much grandiosity to parody? Did the change from “Simple Gifts” to “Greatest Man That Ever Lived” exemplify a broader trend?

Now, after a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs, Dr. DeWall and other psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions.

“Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” Dr. DeWall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, says. His study covered song lyrics from 1980 to 2007 and controlled for genre to prevent the results from being skewed by the growing popularity of, say, rap and hip-hop.

Defining the personality of a generation with song lyrics may seem a bit of a reach, but Dr. DeWall points to research done by his co-authors that showed people of the same age scoring higher in measures of narcissism on some personality tests. The extent and meaning of this trend have been hotly debated by psychologists, some of whom question the tests’ usefulness and say that young people today aren’t any more self-centered than those of earlier generations. The new study of song lyrics certainly won’t end the debate, but it does offer another way to gauge self-absorption: the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Read the full story HERE in the NYT.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Surfing Madonna (art) Appears in Encinitas CA

Surfing Madonna appears in Encinitas

By Jonathan Horn

Monday, April 25, 2011 at 6:24 p.m.
ENCINITAS — Where else but in Encinitas would you get a surfing Madonna?

The city famous for its catchable waves and funky public art now has a new piece apparently installed by a brazen crew of bogus construction workers.

On an afternoon shortly before Earth Day and a few days prior to Easter, a group of men in hard hats installed a 10-foot square stained-glass mosaic of a surfing Our Lady of Guadalupe, complete with booties. “Save the Ocean” runs along the side of the mural. On the nose of her surfboard is the face of Saint Juan Diego who, according to legend, saw the Virgin Mary near Mexico City in 1531.

On Monday, the identity of the artists was a closely-held secret among a select few in Encinitas.

Read the story HERE.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

NYT story on understanding the cognition involved in hearing musical expressiveness

April 18, 2011
To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons

The other day, Paul Simon was rehearsing a favorite song: his own “Darling Lorraine,” about a love that starts hot but turns very cold. He found himself thinking about a three-note rhythmic pattern near the end, where Lorraine (spoiler alert) gets sick and dies.

“The song has that triplet going on underneath that pushes it along, and at a certain point I wanted it to stop because the story suddenly turns very serious,” Mr. Simon said in an interview.

“The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.

The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.

Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians.

And what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns.

Daniel J. Levitin, director of the laboratory for music perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University in Montreal, began puzzling over musical expression in 2002, after hearing a live performance of one of his favorite pieces, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27.

“It just left me flat,” Dr. Levitin, who wrote the best seller “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton, 2006), recalled in a video describing the project. “I thought, well, how can that be? It’s got this beautiful set of notes. The composer wrote this beautiful piece. What is the pianist doing to mess this up?”

Before entering academia, Dr. Levitin worked in the recording industry, producing, engineering or consulting for Steely Dan, Blue Öyster Cult, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder. He has played tenor saxophone with Mel Tormé and Sting, and guitar with David Byrne. (He also performs around campus with a group called Diminished Faculties.)

After the Mozart mishap, Dr. Levitin and a graduate student, Anjali Bhatara, decided to try teasing apart some elements of musical expression in a rigorous scientific way.

He likened it to tasting two different pots de crème: “One has allspice and ginger and the other has vanilla. You know they taste different but you can’t isolate the ingredient.”

To decipher the contribution of different musical flavorings, they had Thomas Plaunt, chairman of McGill’s piano department, perform snatches of several Chopin nocturnes on a Disklavier, a piano with sensors under each key recording how long he held each note and how hard he struck each key (a measure of how loud each note sounded). The note-by-note data was useful because musicians rarely perform exactly the way the music is written on the page — rather, they add interpretation and personality to a piece by lingering on some notes and quickly releasing others, playing some louder, others softer.

The pianist’s recording became a blueprint, what researchers considered to be the 100 percent musical rendition. Then they started tinkering. A computer calculated the average loudness and length of each note Professor Plaunt played. The researchers created a version using those average values so that the music sounded homogeneous and evenly paced, with every eighth note held for an identical amount of time, each quarter note precisely double the length of an eighth note.

They created other versions too: a 50 percent version, with note lengths and volume halfway between the mechanical average and the original, and versions at 25 percent, 75 percent, and even 125 percent and 150 percent, in which the pianist’s loud notes were even louder, his longest-held notes even longer.

Study subjects listened to them in random order, rating how emotional each sounded. Musicians and nonmusicians alike found the original pianist’s performance most emotional and the averaged version least emotional.

But it was not just changes in volume and timing that moved them. Versions with even more variation than the original, at 125 percent and 150 percent, did not strike listeners as more emotional.

“I think it means that the pianist is very experienced in using these expressive cues,” said Dr. Bhatara, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Université Paris Descartes. “He’s using them at kind of an optimal level.”

And random versions with volume and note-length changes arbitrarily sprinkled throughout made almost no impression.

All of this makes perfect sense to Paul Simon.

“I find it fascinating that people recognize what the point of the original version is, that that’s their peak,” he said. “People like to feel the human element, but if it becomes excessive then I guess they edit it back. It’s gilding the lily, it’s too Rococo.”

The Element of Surprise

Say the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is playing a 12-minute sonata featuring a four-note melody that recurs several times. On the final repetition, the melody expands, to six notes.

“If I set it up right,” Mr. Ma said in an interview, “that is when the sun comes out. It’s like you’ve been under a cloud, and then you are looking once again at the vista and then the light is shining on the whole valley.”

But that happens, he said, only if he is restrained enough to save some exuberance and emphasis for that moment, so that by the time listeners see that musical sun they have not already “been to a disco and its light show” and been “blinded by cars driving at night with the headlights in your eyes.”

Dr. Levitin’s results suggest that the more surprising moments in a piece, the more emotion listeners perceive — if those moments seem logical in context.

“It’s deviation from a pattern,” Mr. Ma said. “A surprise is only a surprise when you know it departs from something.”


Read the full story, with media, HERE.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Six Songs That Were Decades Ahead of Their Time (Cracked)

Cracked has a nice post with some recording oddities and links of stuff that sounds like grunge, hip-hop, and electronica years or decades before those styles became possible. Check them out here at Cracked.

A few years back I posted one of them, Love Without Sound by British composer Delia Derbyshire. This 1969 cut sounds like electronica thirty years before electronica:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Popular Whale songs (Baby Got Humpback?)

The Telegraph

Whales 'can't resist a catchy pop tune'
Humpback whales love a good hit single, and every year a new catchy pop tune spreads among the male underwater crooners, said an Australian study released on Thursday.

6:56PM BST 14 Apr 2011
The men are the only ones who sing, likely in the hopes of making some lady whale swoon, according to the research published in the US journal Current Biology.

If there is a whale version of the King of Pop, he likely resides off the coast of eastern Australia, because that is where the popular tune of the season has always originated for the past decade, researchers said.

The hit-making tune then ripples eastward across the South Pacific Ocean, from Australia to French Polynesia, infecting genetically distinct groups of whales who all start singing the same song during breeding season.

In typical pop music fashion, the tunes are not all that original most of the time, said researcher Ellen Garland, a graduate student at The University of Queensland.

"It would be like splicing an old Beatles song with U2," Garland said. "Occasionally they completely throw the current song out the window and start singing a brand new song."

The 11-year study described itself as the "first documentation of a repeated, dynamic cultural change occurring across multiple populations at such a large geographic scale."

What remains a mystery is why the whales all sing the same song, when presumably their efforts are meant to make them stand out against the pack.

"We think this male quest for song novelty is in the hope of being that little bit different and perhaps more attractive to the opposite sex," said Garland.

"This is then countered by the urge to sing the same tune, by the need to conform."

Read the story with image and links to related stories HERE.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Boston Symphony's search for a new conductor

SLATE has a nice post on the Boston Symphony Orchestra's search for a new conductor:

The Elusive Maestro
Why the process of finding a new conductor makes music lovers weep.
By Jan SwaffordPosted Tuesday, April 12, 2011, at 11:20 AM ET

When the Boston Symphony announced in 2001 that James Levine would be taking over the orchestra in 2004, there was a mighty outpouring of "hmmmm" from the Boston musical public. Levine was good, no question, but he was mainly an opera conductor, churning it out at the Met night after night. And he planned on keeping his job in New York. On the other hand, at least Boston's long musical doldrum under Seiji Ozawa was nearing its end after three decades of music-making more forgettable than otherwise. The stories of Levine and Ozawa form a parable of orchestras and their maestros, a parable about to be rehearsed again.

When Levine finally mounted the podium in Symphony Hall for his debut as music director, Boston discovered that he was so bulbous and physically messed up that he sat hunched over with one cheek planted awkwardly on a stool, only occasionally looked up from the score, and barely moved his arms. Yet from his debut with the epic Mahler Eighth, Levine proceeded to give performances that were not just superb; they were sometimes staggering.

Levine performed more contemporary music than any Boston conductor since Serge Koussevitsky. He got away with it because he was so damn good. And he was old-fashioned good, unsullied by trends—such as the early-music virus that infects conductors with the delusion that faster is always better. His tempos, like every part of his conceptions, were a particular response to a particular score. His Beethoven and Sibelius were as coherent and distinctive as his Schoenberg and Harbison. He was unpretentious and boyishly enthusiastic, known to all as "Jimmy."

Clearly the orchestra understood that with Levine they could show they were one of the greatest bands in the world, and they rose to the opportunity. Unforgettable evenings accumulated: a full-throated and magnificent German Requiem, a ferocious Varèse Amériques, a two-year series pairing Beethoven and Schoenberg. Levine's program note for the Beethoven Missa Solemnis began, "This is the greatest piece ever written! I mean it!" He made us believe it. Before long it dawned on us that the Boston Symphony was entering its most glorious period since the Koussevitzky era–and Levine might be a better conductor than Koussevitzky. You got used to emerging from Symphony Hall with your head buzzing, ecstatic.

Then pffffft.

On March 2, the BSO announced that Levine's season was over and, likewise, his seven-year tenure as music director, effective in September but in practice immediately. At age 67, after three years of falling apart from chronic back trouble and other physical problems, with management trying to nudge him toward the exit so the orchestra could get on with its life, one more back collapse finished it. Levine had been profligate with his health for a long time, partly due to his killing schedule between the Met and the BSO. Now his lifestyle caught up with him. The Boston Symphony, having spent the three years of his decline in limbo, now entered some circle of hell where rudderless orchestras drift in despair.

For years to come it's going to be guest conductors, with an occasional Levine appearance if he's up to it. Can guests give good performances? Sure. But guest conductors equal to the BSO are a rare and endangered species. Most of the young maestros have orchestras and crowded schedules of their own. In practice the best guests tend to be semi-retired, like the incomparable long-time visitor Bernard Haitink, or like Sir Colin Davis, Christophe von Dohnányi, and Lorin Maazel. All those men are in their 80s. More importantly, guest conductors can't shape an orchestra week by week, season by season, into an ensemble of some 70 people with a personality, a point of view, an almost clairvoyant communication among players and conductor that can approach the level of a string quartet's.

Meanwhile the conductor search is on. Call it prospecting for the perfect mate or Saturday-night date. He or she doesn't exist, but some people are much, much better than others. There's looks and talent and experience, but there's also chemistry, and those don't always happen together. For an orchestra, there's also the bottom line, which says that you want somebody holding the baton who's as magnetic as possible, to put the butts in the seats. When you make a mistake you have to live with it for years, if not decades. The pitfalls and pratfalls of the search process are illustrated by the case of Seiji Ozawa.

Read the full post HERE.

Cover of the Month: 1979 Colombian Vinyl--cumbia + Bee Gees = Cumbia Alivianada

Sunday, April 10, 2011

James Blake's The Wilhelm Scream (+chords)

James Blake has had a good year, releasing an EP in fall and an eponymous debut album earlier this year. He's got a fresh sound, very sparse, lean, kind of dubstep, kind of grimy, kind of retro-fi, and a touch of pure pop ballad, and he's getting a lot of well deserved attention. His tunes are very simple but heartfelt, and his arranging of noise and atmospheric sounds are what makes them interesting. On his debut album probably my initial favorite was "The Wilhelm Scream," which is no more than ten measures of one melody, two lyrics over and over in an increasingly noisy and dense atmosphere. I like it.

I haven't figured out exactly what he's doing under the noise, and I haven't really seen the chord progression anywhere, so for some more beginner musicians out there who might enjoy playing this tune I'll just toss up a quick guess:

Intro: CMaj7 - - - Em - - - CMaj7 - - - G - - -
                                                     [pick up] I don't know about my

CMaj 7 - - - Em - - -
Dreams......     I don't know about my
CMaj7 - - -                  G
dreaming anymore, All that I know is I'm

G - F,        F - Em, Em - D,   D - C - - - - -                         G - - - - - - -
Fal-ling, fal-ling, fal-ling, fal-ling...might as well fall

Then the progression is repeated with the second line. The interesting thing is that the melody is so simple that Blake can change the chords underneath it, and what makes it really interesting is that he begins to do this as the texture gets noisier.
At some point the G chord for two bars at the end becomes one bar of G then a GMaj7 for the second bar. Later still the second bar becomes two beats each of GMa7 and G7 (which leads nicely to a CMaj7). Sometimes instead of ending on the G he moves to either Em or something else, and at some point he changes the progression to G - - - GMa7/F# - - - Em - - - G/D - - - CMaj - - - D [and then holds it past the normal resolution spot; from here you could go to the Em or G]

I wish I had more time to really figure it out. Below is the official video and then a really nice live version, which has different alterations of the chords; listening to it now as I type I can hear that he doesn't resolve to the G at the end of the line but goes to Em, then to D (with a possible finish on GMaj7-G7). I'd like to figure more out but I have to get back to work, but I thought I'd throw this out there for whomever...

Rave Music Pie Chart

Vodou/Voodoo in New York (NYT)


April 8, 2011
Voodoo, an Anchor, Rises Again

IT was past 3 a.m. in a dim basement in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and Jack Laroche, a Haitian-American computer engineer, nervously awaited his bride: a voodoo spirit named Ezili Freda who believers say has the power to lavish love and wealth and render wayward spouses impotent.

As four drummers pounded rhythmically, voodoo priestesses in bright-colored dresses danced in ecstatic circles, dousing the floor with rum and chanting, “Ayibobo!” — the voodoo “amen.” The bride’s dramatic entrance was signaled when a priestess in a shimmering pink silk dress started trembling violently, her eyes rolling toward the back of her head before she fainted. When she came to, apparently possessed by Ezili Freda, she took Mr. Laroche’s hand and nibbled on his ear coquettishly before the happy couple exchanged vows in French.

Long misunderstood and maligned in Western popular culture, voodoo has become a spiritual anchor in New York City’s vast Haitian community and in Haitian enclaves across the country as practitioners look for comfort after the devastating earthquake in the impoverished Caribbean nation last year.

In New York, where there are roughly 300,000 people who were born in Haiti or are of Haitian descent — the largest concentration in the United States — richly painted basement voodoo temples are sprinkled around Harlem and in parts of Brooklyn and Queens. Mambos, or voodoo priestesses, say they can barely keep up with “demann,” or prayer requests; spiritual love recipes to lure recalcitrant lovers are the most popular. Voodoo prayer circles in which practitioners meet to commiserate have also proliferated, with a notable intensity in the months since the earthquake.

But the world of voodoo has fallen under an unwelcome spotlight in recent weeks as a result of two episodes in which the authorities say voodoo played a central role — a fatal five-alarm fire in Brooklyn and the coming trial in Queens of a woman accused of severely burning her daughter.

The fire, in a building in Flatbush in February, was ignited by candles surrounding a bed during a ceremony in the apartment of a voodoo priest who the authorities said was hired by a woman to chase away evil spirits. The fire killed a 64-year-old woman in another apartment and left dozens of tenants homeless.

In Queens, a Haitian immigrant, Marie Lauradin, 29, is to go on trial this summer because prosecutors say she performed a voodoo exorcism ritual two years ago during which she lighted a flammable liquid in the form of a circle on a floor and placed her 6-year-old daughter, Frantzcia, within it, engulfing her in flames. Ms. Lauradin is charged with assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

The child’s grandmother Sylvenie Thessier, 72, whom prosecutors accused of doing nothing while her granddaughter was burned, was sentenced last week to one to three years in prison after pleading guilty to reckless endangerment.

The episodes have shaken the tight-knit and largely secretive voodoo community in New York, and practitioners say they were aberrant acts perpetrated by ignorant people who were abusing the religion.

Dowoti Desir, a Haitian-American voodoo scholar who has a temple in her home in Harlem, said the episodes were contributing to the demonization of voodoo and forcing people to practice it underground.

“Voodoo practitioners are in the closet for fear of being hounded or suffering reprisals,” she said. “The truth is that voodoo has been a source of empowerment for generations of Haitians.” (Many practitioners and scholars prefer alternate renderings of the word “voodoo,” like “voudou” or “vodun,” which they say more accurately reflect its origins.)

Some people are turning to voodoo in response to financial hardships caused by the recession. And among younger Haitian-Americans, voodoo is a means to reconnect with their roots.

Read the full story plus photos in the NYT HERE.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Researchers Dig Up 'Homosexual Or Transsexual' Caveman Near Prague


Researchers Dig Up 'Homosexual Or Transsexual' Caveman Near Prague

by Eyder Peralta

Researchers from the Czech Archaeological Society made an interesting discovery outside of Prague: The 5,000-year-old remains of a caveman were buried in an unusual manner. First, the male body was lying on its left side and its head was facing east. Second, the body was buried with domestic jugs and an egg-shaped pot.

Why is this odd? Time reports the way the body was buried might mean the man was gay, because the burial is consistent with the way women were buried. The bodies of men faced west and they were buried with hammers, flint knives and weapons.

Time adds:

"From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral rites very seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake," [Kamila Remisova Vesinova, a researcher for the Czech Archaeological Society,] said at a press conference. "Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual."

Vesinova told Ireland's Press TV that the man would have lived during the Stone Age's Corded Ware culture, which existed between 2,500 and 2,800 BC.

Katerina Semradova, another member of team, told The Daily Mail that colleagues had once found the body of a woman warrior buried as a man:

She added that Siberian shamans, or witch doctors, were also buried in this way but with richer funeral accessories appropriate to their elevated position in society.

"This later discovery was neither of those," she said. "We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a transvestite or third-gender grave in the Czech Republic."

Now, let's sound a note of skepticism here: Dr. Lemont Dobson, a historian and archaeologist at Drury University, told us determining the sex of a skeleton by looking at the pelvis is 90 percent accurate but not perfect.

"There is always the possibility that the individual had some form of shamanistic role in their society," he says. "If so, the female position would be appropriate. I know the excavator suggests that this was not the case, but I am not convinced by the argument. I haven't seen enough compelling reason to discount such a role in this case."

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Tuesday, April 05, 2011