Monday, January 3, 2011

The Voder

In Chapter Nine of Philip K. Dick's We Can Build You, Sam Barrows dismisses the Lincoln simulacrum's desire to "speechify" as nothing but "the familiar mechanical man gimmick, with this dressed-up historical guise. The same thing was demonstrated at the 1939 San Francisco World's Fair, Pedro the Vodor." A true Cartesian, Barrows distinguishes the human from the animal (which Descartes metaphorically likened to the machine) by the human capacity for language. The Lincoln simulacrum is, in effect, dismissed by Barrows as being as mindless as a parrot imitating human speech.

I suspect Philip Dick was writing from memory, as he (or the book's editor) has made a minor orthographic error, for it's actually spelled voder, not vodor. In all likelihood Dick visited the San Francisco World's Fair (formally, the Golden Gate International Exposition, held 1939 - 1940) and saw, at around the age of 11, Bell Laboratories' demonstration of what he (mis)remembered as "Pedro the Vodor" (pictured above, with operator; Bell's voder exhibit is to the right). Developed by Bell engineer H. W. Dudley, the voder was Bell Laboratories' first demonstration of an electronic speech synthesis device. This early analog system preceded Bell Labs' work in "articulatory synthesis"  conducted by Cecil Coker in the 1960s, and Joe Olive's later work on "concatenate synthesis" in the 1970s (see Mark Tatham and Katherine Morton, Developments in Speech Synthesis, Wiley 2005). I mention this later research in speech synthesis by Bell Labs because it is worth mentioning that a famous milestone in that research was a sample created by John L. Kelly in 1962 using an IBM 704 computer, consisting of Kelly's vocoder synthesizer recreating "A Bicycle Built for Two"  (AKA "Daisy Bell"). Arthur C. Clarke, then visiting his friend John Pierce at the Bell Labs' Murray Hill facility, witnessed the demonstration and later used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey during the scene when the HAL 9000 computer is being dismantled by Dave Bowman. (I recommend the essay by Joe Olive, recognized as one of the leading experts in text-to-speech [TTS] synthesis, titled "'The Talking Computer': Text to Speech Synthesis," in David G. Stork, Ed., HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality, MIT Press 1997).

Note that the voder is an electrical speech synthesizer while the vocoder is a speech analyzer coupled with a voder speech synthesizer. Dennis Klatt has posted a historical review of the development of speech synthesizers and has also conveniently posted a short sample of the sound of the voder (which Philip K. Dick undoubtedly heard) which you can hear by clicking this link. For those interested, I note that Wendy Carlos' music for the film Stanley Kubrick made after 2001, A Clockwork Orange, is the earliest work in her ouevre to use the vocodor, but she indicates here that the vocoded portions were done prior to being assigned the film, those vocoded portions being the last movement of Beethoven's Symphony #9 and Timesteps.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Junk Shot

Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee
Theorist and critic Walter Benjamin owned this watercolor for many years. In his essay, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," he wrote this about Klee's painting:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to say, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

If you have followed my blog the past three years, you couldn't fail but notice that beginning in May I stopped posting regularly. I didn't stop out of a lack of interest in blogging, that is, feeling I had nothing to say. The main reason I stopped had to do with what Walter Benjamin describes in the passage above, the catastrophe which has the disorienting effect of propelling us backwards into a future to which our back is turned, while the wreckage in front of us continues to grow higher. That ever-growing pile of wreckage is what we know as history. Beginning in early May, I found that I was increasingly preoccupied by the Gulf oil disaster and its ecological consequences, which so consumed my thoughts that I was simply unable to concentrate on anything significant for any length of time. Since by dint of personality I find it impossible to write about disaster - it is rather like a form of paralysis - I simply wrote nothing at all. And I think, for quite a awhile, longer than I realized, I didn't think about blogging at all. One might say that the theoretical implication concerns the disappearance of selfhood as the defining experience of identity in the postmodern world.

The fact is, as Slavoj Zizek has observed, no private, profit-oriented company, no matter how rich or how powerful, is capable of handling a major ecological catastrophe such as the Gulf oil spill: it doesn't have the reach to both contain the disaster and clean up the mess at the same time, which is why it was so ludicrous when the executives of the companies involved in the Gulf oil disaster - BP, Transocean and Halliburton - started pointing fingers at each other during their testimony before the U. S. Senate. The greater problem, though, is that all the pseudo-scientific statistical blather about "sustainable risks" only promises, as Zizek observes, more catastrophes, that is, an ever-increasing pile of debris.

Speaking of testifying . . . (for the ambiguous etymology of the word testify, go here), the answer to the riddle I posted on New Year's Eve is below.

The fifth man has only one testicle.

Friday, December 31, 2010

An End-Of-The-Year Riddle

I told you about the walrus and me, man. You know that we're as close as can be, man. Well, here's another riddle for you all:

A guy comes to a door that says Singleton's Club. Curious, he opens it and enters the room. Five men are seated around a table. The first has just one arm, the second one leg, the third one ear, and the fourth one eye. The fifth man looks perfectly normal. What's going on?

I will post the answer next year. (Tomorrow.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Greatest Hits

It is a generally accepted fact that it was Columbia Records' executive Mitch Miller's idea to do the first "greatest hits" album, by Johnny Mathis, appropriately titled Johnny's Greatest Hits (pictured). Released early in 1958, over one million copies of the album have been sold, earning it a "Platinum" designation. According to Joel Whitburn (The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums, Revised & Enlarged 3rd Edition, 1995) Johnny's Greatest Hits remained on the Billboard album chart for 178 weeks--in other words, for about three and a half years. Sales of the record may, in fact, have been much higher than one million copies, as the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) didn't begin certifying platinum albums until 1976.

I've been thinking about the concept behind the "greatest hits" album as a consequence of my previous post on the reissue. As I indicated yesterday, while Milt Gabler pioneered the reissue in 1934 by licensing from the American Record Company the masters of early jazz records for his independent (as opposed to "major") Commodore label, it was George Avakian at Columbia Records--incidentally, it was he who apparently signed Johnny Mathis to Columbia in the mid-50s--who with a series of reissues beginning in 1940 provided the first outline of a primary jazz canon that influenced the writing and thinking on jazz for the next several decades. Having thought about the idea of the reissue for the past couple of days, I have concluded that the "greatest hits" album is merely another name for a reissue: like the reissue, it is both a retrospective and also promises nothing but the canonical recordings--the proverbial wheat separated from the chaff. In the case of Johnny's Greatest Hits, it cost Columbia Records nothing to (re)issue and had the additional benefit of making the company pots of money. Obviously the music industry is a complex, profit-oriented institution. Executives at Columbia Records learned from the earlier Hot Jazz Classics series of reissues that rather than to ignore its back catalog and lease those masters to indie labels, it should transform its back catalog into yet another revenue stream--but call it "greatest hits" rather than a reissue. True, "greatest hits" suggests a form of endorsement by the tasteless mob ("popular") rather than the "critical" form of endorsement coming from an informed "specialist," but the latter form of approbation suggests the elitist judgment of the snob, to be avoided at all costs. A "greatest hits" album thus has populist appeal. Moreover, a "greatest hits" album has the added advantage of thinking for, and then fulfilling, the desire of the masses for a definitive collection: in a "greatest hits" package, prescience is combined with efficiency. Rather than a disorganized mess of scattered and noisy 45s or a bunch of LPs, the "greatest hits" album collects the canonical songs--all the songs "that matter"--into one slick, convenient, inexpensive bundle.

Ruminating on the "greatest hits" album allows us to conclude the following about the music industry:

1. The past and present catalogs of all of the major music labels are one vast (but hugely intimidating) database. Apple's iTunes recognizes this to be true, and has exploited it for profit. The iTunes database holds the promise of someday being like the mind of God, holding all possible musical tracks within it, the sum total of all music ever recorded, and hence the potential of fulfilling every potential desire. Scarcity (rarity), a sad indicator of corporate inefficiency, shall someday be a thing of the past.

2. We must acknowledge that music, like bricks, is the result of sophisticated technology subjected to human will, an industrial product, and hence is a commodity that is manufactured and sold. Apple's iTunes also recognizes this to be true and holds the promise of (someday) holding the largest possible selection of bricks made, offering all optional colors and textural variations, a veritable cornucopia, the superest of all superstores.

3. All human technologies seek to perfect ("improve on") nature. Bricks, made to be sold, are stone perfected. "Greatest hits" packages improve on the imperfect state of nature, offering the typical (the non-specialized) consumer a basic set of solid, widely-endorsed, time-proven bricks at a reasonable price. Even "Greatest Hits" albums are available on iTunes.

Addendum 12/30/10 5:07 p.m. -- According to Adam White, The Billboard Book of Gold & Platinum Records (1990), Johnny's Greatest Hits was certified " Gold" on 6/1/59, and certified "Platinum" on 11/21/86.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


According to this site, a reissue is “the repeated issue of a published work,” and is also known as a “re-release” or “re-edition.” But what is the history of the reissue? When did the practice begin? Why? Under what circumstances? Obviously a reissue is one of those special cases when a verb is used as a noun: the action of reissuing creates a reissue. Walter Benjamin (“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”) might say that the reissue is a consequence of modernity’s many tools for mechanical reproduction, and hence represents the process of the democratization of art.

Bruce Boyd Raeburn (New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History, University of Michigan Press 2009), indicates that the practice of reissuing started during the Great Depression, when in 1934 Milt Gabler negotiated a leasing arrangement with the American Record Company (ARC) — which controlled the masters of the moribund OKeh, Brunswick, and Vocalion labels — and reissued some early jazz recordings on his Commodore label. The next year he formed the United Hot Clubs of America (UHCA) and reissued 57 jazz classics on the label over the next five years.

Then, according to this interesting article, in early 1940, Columbia Records followed Milt Gabler's lead and authorized a 20-year-old Yale student (the Yale campus was a mere 20 miles from Columbia’s Bridgeport factory) from Russia named George Avakian to choose from among hundreds of early jazz records--in effect a database--those that would be rescued from obscurity and reissued. Hence George Avakian, consciously or unconsciously believing in the democratization of art, made many hard-to-find recordings available to a broader listening audience. “In this way,” the author of the aforementioned article astutely observes, “the first outlines of a primary canon emerged that would influence the writing and thinking on jazz history for decades to come.” Thus also began the so-called “New Orleans revival” and the quest for genuine jazz. Not only did the practice of reissuing canonize certain jazz records, it historicized jazz and established standards of proper taste, for these records were reissued in albums consisting of four red label Columbia 10” 78 rpm records under the banner Hot Jazz Classics, “hot jazz” now a distinct, meaningful kind of genuine jazz music. Put in another way, jazz not labeled “hot” was no longer considered authentic jazz. Such is an effect of canonization, but also one of the consequences of the reissue. As Walter Benjamin observed,

One might generalize by saying the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition. . . . Instead of being based on ritual, it [art] begins to be based on another practice--politics.

Or, to use Derridean language, a reissue is a “citation” grafted into a new context and, as an inevitable consequence, refunctioned.

Jazz audiophiles say that many of the reissued records in the Hot Jazz Classics albums were pressed from original stampers, noticeable because there is no lead-in groove but just barely room enough at the edge to drop the stylus (the original records were actually 10 1/4” as opposed to the 10” size of the reissues). As I understand it, there were around 20 albums issued by Columbia Records in the Hot Jazz Classics series, the first four being the following:

Louis Armstrong, King Louis, C-28, #1 (pictured above)
Bix Beiderbecke, Jazz As It Should Be Played, C-29, #2
Fletcher Henderson, Fletcher Henderson, C-30, #3
Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, C-31, #4

When Columbia reissued these four albums beginning the spring of 1940, the cornerstone of the jazz canon was laid. Following the reissues of Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson were albums on Duke Ellington (#5) Earl Hines, and Frank Teschemacher (#7). Other reissues followed, and so the past became present. The reissue, a consequence of mechanical reproduction and all that it implies, thus gave birth to the audiophile, one who philosophically adheres to the hierarchy of original and copy and who therefore denounces the copy in the name of the original, and the collector, one who exhibits the will to omniscience and has taken up the aural equivalent of the hobby of trainspotting.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

All That Jazz

An article in today’s L. A. Times includes the announcement that Edward O. Bland’s 1959 documentary short The Cry of Jazz is among the twenty-five choices made by the Library of Congress to be included in the 2010 National Film Registry. A film about the politics of jazz, the stature of which has grown the past several years, and featuring extremely rare footage of Sun Ra in performance, The Cry of Jazz (34m 14s) has been available on DVD (Region 0) since 2004. Something of a museum piece, the film’s argument is that jazz music is the authentic expression of African-American life (black American culture’s “joy and suffering”), and therefore cannot be properly (that is, authentically) played by white musicians. Hence it was probably among the first such films to explore explicitly the issue of the appropriation of jazz by white musicians. The author of the L. A. Times article writes,

[The film] intercuts scenes of life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods with interviews with interracial artists and intellectuals. ‘[The] Cry of Jazz’ is a historic and fascinating film that comments on racism and the appropriation of jazz by those who fail to understand its artistic and cultural origins.

As has been the case since the Fifties, jazz is once again portrayed as the kind of music that seems to hold a special appeal to snobs and elitists (“intellectuals”), especially so to those preoccupied by “its artistic and cultural origins.” I’m not actually disputing this characterization of the film since the argument of the film relies upon the foundational myth of popular music, the distinction between the authentic and the commercial (or inauthentic) and the various guises this distinction takes: innovation vs. popularization, black vs. white, jazz vs. rock, and so on. The way this opposition works itself out, as Michael Jarrett has written, “Hot jazz turns to swing, bop turns cool, eroticism turns to lassitude, black bleaches to white, the dirty gets laundered, and the uneven is worn smooth: the structure of this apocalyptic sequence reproduces itself any number of times in accounts of American popular music since World War II” (Sound Tracks 191). As Jarrett also observes, this authentic vs. commercial model seems ontologically stable to us “because it explains what Andrew Ross calls ‘the everyday, plagiaristic, commerce between white [“commercial”] and black [“authentic”] musics’; it conceptualizes the history of American popular music as a series of unilateral, commercially driven energy exchanges that everywhere bespeak ‘a racist history of exploitation exclusively weighted to dominant white interests’…” (191).

This argument is attractive, of course, but it also has limitations. For one thing, as Simon Frith has pointed out, the argument is based on a confusion that presumes “music is the starting point of the industrial process—the raw material over which everyone fights—when it is, in fact, the final product” (the contrast between music-as-expression and music-as-commodity). What’s more, the film employs an essentializing strategy avoided by today's cultural critics, and therefore is unable to avoid the limitations of an essentialist understanding of the “African-American experience.” Essentialism, Trina Grillo writes,

is the notion that there is a single woman’s, or Black person’s, or any other group’s experience that can be described independently from other aspects of the person—that there is an “essence” to that experience. An essentialist outlook assumes that the experience of being a member of the group under discussion is a stable one, one with a clear meaning, a meaning constant through time, space, and different historical, social, political, and personal contexts. (qtd. in Sherene H. Razack, Looking White People in the Eye, p. 157)

Perhaps the film’s greatest failing, however, is that its provocative declaration “jazz is dead” is actually an admission by the filmmakers that they cannot account for future jazz innovation. Shot largely in 1958, released in 1959, the irony is that about the time the film was released (rather limited, so I understand), Ornette Coleman and his associates began to pioneer harmolodics—a move beyond the lead/rhythm opposition which had structured all jazz improvisation up to that time—with albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), the title of which uncannily seems like a rejoinder to the "jazz is dead" argument in The Cry of Jazz.

I should note that the Library of Congress admits that the goal of the registry is not to identify the best movies ever made but to preserve films with artistic, cultural or historical significance. Historically considered as a pre-Civil Rights Era documentary, The Cry of Jazz would seem to be an appropriate choice for inclusion in the Registry.