Sound Museum | A $2.50 entrance fee idea.

I had this idea the other day and thought “such a thing must already exist”, and indeed there are many similar ideas out there, but I thought I’d outline my version anyway.

The sound museum is an archive of sounds, virtually or in a space, that can’t be heard anymore. Ideally these would be original sound recordings, primary documents of the sounds in their natural environment. The sound of a city street in Paris in 1950 available to compare with another sound of a city street in Shanghai from the same time. Visitors could hear different accents that have evolved over the years or even what the ocean sounded like crashing against rocks that have eroded. What does the crow of a peacock sound like? What’s the wind sound like on a glacier?

Most of the sounds in the sound museum are things that people haven’t thought to record up until now, so I imagine we’d need to simulate a lot of sounds. Museum curators would hire professional sound dramaturgs and historians to accurately recreate a particular sound. For instance, the sound of a horse walking on cobblestones would have to be different in the 17th century than today because the quality of steel the horses were shod with was different.

Ideally these sounds would be available online, or perhaps broadcast in curated programs. like an audio version of Life magazine or National Geographic they could be put together to express a particular idea or theme through sonic juxtaposition and recontextualizing of common noise. Maybe there could be a website that just streamed random entries to your player of choice. One minute you’d be listening to the calls of North American songbirds, the next, idling Ford engines throughout history.

Some additions would be expensive and involve elaborate productions. We might try to recreate the sound of the battle of Trafalgar. We’d have to find the right kind of wood, build ships, source original artillery or more likely make replicas. We’d need historical dialect coaches to come work with voice talent. Then we’d take the whole thing out to sea and blow it all up. Luckily we wouldn’t have to source much English wood, mostly just French. We’d only get one take, but I bet it would sound amazing.

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Facebook Din | an idea that’s doubtfully worth anything at all.

Since my last “Idea, by monetary value” was so successful (at least a half dozen of you showed interest in paying some small amount of money for it) I decided to propose a truly worthless invention.

I would like to have a version of facebook that is auditory-based rather than textual.

When the user logs in, instead of seeing a list of quotes and “what’s on your minds” they would hear the ambient roar of every one of their associates posts, recorded in their own voices. Each post would still be represented by the speaker’s avatar but they’d appear in an illusory three dimensional space, more recent posts in front and older posts receding into the darkness (or brightness). As you navigate through this “space” and click on a particular post it would become loud enough to become discernible.

In this way, facebook would become like an endless virtual cafe or salon. Unlike the real world, as each moment passed it would be recorded and preserved, still available to us. We could wander from table to table joining conversations that happened days ago while we were doing something else. The passage of time would be irrelevant. Effectively the experience swaps space in for time, so the same person would appear to be in many places at once but in fact was was/is in many times at once.

To complete the metaphor, non-verbal posts (such as links or quizzes) would have auditory queues that compliment a theme of each user’s choice. For instance, one user could decide that all quizzes would sound like chamber music from a society drawing room, another might have facebook sound like a noisy bar, and another might choose the explosions of a battlefield. I personally would like to think of facebook as a busy cafeteria: quizzes would sound like the tinkling from spoons stirring coffee cups and links would be the spray of the dishwasher on ubiquitous plastic trays. There would be no background music, just the murmur of a server asking “you want gravy on that?” or “Sweet or unsweet?” (as they do in Southern cafeterias when you order tea). The entire effect would be filtered through some reverb to simulate the echo of ceramic tile and glass.

I doubt anyone will take me up on this idea. I don’t see how it can make a penny. But at least I’ve dreamed.

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If you live or spend any time on the lower east side you’ve probably seen my favorite new piece of street art. This is among the most brilliant pieces of camp I’ve ever seen. There’s so much to unravel in this work. As you can see, its a re-imagining of Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyn portrait print but with an image of an older Leonard Nimoy as Spock swapped in for Monroe’s face. The mashup of dichotomies is impressive: semitic/blonde, age/youth, masculine/feminine, geeky/sexy, “logical”/emotional. Warhol’s co-opting of commercial art being co-opted for street art, all wrapped up in 1960’s and some serious drag. Perfect.


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Kerning game : at least $20 idea

One of the things that exciting about new distribution channels for small applications is that tiny markets have emerged through extremely specialized applications. A few weeks ago Dan Dickinson showed me a game for the iphone called Kern. He correctly assumed that I’d be excited about a type nerd game, and while the game is fun, its not as fun as I thought it would be because it really has next to nothing to do with kerning (its more like tetris)

So I started to think about what a good kerning game would be like and came up with the following concept.

The game is simple: first the player is shown well kerned word or phrase, set in a nice typeface. Then the letters scramble themselves all over the screen. The object of the game is to neatly kern the letters so as to reproduce the original. Once the player feels the letters are in place they press a “Check my work” button and the original floats down from above, pausing just above and then overlaying the players version. Then the player is awarded points based on the quality of the kerning. Each level would get harder and harder, eventually you’d just be kerning a bunch of A’s and k’s.

Additionally, “celebrity” typographers and type designers would be hired to provide the original samples. Each sample would be set in that designer or foundry’s own face and at the end of a level there would be a link to the foundry’s homepage or something to encourage the purchasing of the font the player’s been staring at for the last 10 minutes. Ideally, the type designers would recognize this as free advertising and provide samples for little or no cost. Updates to the software could come once a week or so, so one week you’d get an Ed Benguiat level and the next week you’d do Process Type Foundry or Spiekermann.

The best part, to me, is that you could include information about different typefaces, the designers who drew them, their history, and their usage. For instance, I would love to read a bit about how Robert Slimbach imagines people would use any of his drawings of classic text faces and then practice setting those faces the way he does. Instead of a simple diversion, I imagine this game could be both educational and a great exercise for improving typographic fundamentals.

Anyone want to make this game?

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Last year my wife went to Berlin on a research trip and I was stuck at home. To make me feel better she brought back a suitcase of weapons grade licorice. I’ve savored it over the months and my supply is almost out but there’s one item I can’t bring myself to eat. Its a package of 3 sweet cream licorice bars (like chocolate bars, but licorice flavored instead of chocolate flavored). I can think of few treats I’d rather eat. Cruelly, the package of this is so perfect that I can’t imagine destroying it for the temporary pure joy of eating. I’m happy to share the packaging with you, fortunately you can’t upload the taste of licorice to my webhost.

The printing is a classic early 20th century advertising vernacular reminscent of the Beggarstaffs or Lucien Bernard. The gold ink complements the simple flat red and black that make up an image that connotes exoticism and luxury through the most modern of conveyances, the steam ship. Once opened we are presented with a handsome if somewhat disconcerting trademark of an enormous licorice plant taking root on the earth. On the reverse side is a wonderfully confident description of the licorice that starts by comparing the product to mother’s milk and finishes with a reminder to breath. Beneath that lies the second image of the steamer, perfectly aligned to sail across the horizontal seam of simple, delicate wax paper that envelops the object of our desire. The proportions of the three thin bars are a beautiful, balanced golden rectangle. Each is molded with the image of the steam ship. You can see that my excitement got the best of me and I was unable to adequately frame this last picture. Immediately after I took this final photograph I quickly slipped the licorice back into its beautiful case lest I be overwhelmed with the urge to sample these precious bars of pure joy and forever mar the effect of their perfect beauty.

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Kraftwerk V Zapp | Who’s Computer Love is the Strongest?

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Lost Music | The Unconventional Sounds of Utility

A couple weeks ago a friend of mine asked me to write a piece of original incidental music for a film he’s making. The scene takes place in the lobby of a corny hotel and he needed a piece of suitably corny background music. We talked a little about it, but we didn’t need to say much because it was obvious. Everyone knows what kind of music plays in corny hotel lobbies: Muzak.

Muzak, though a trademarked brand, has become synonymous with what is derisively called “elevator music”. Muzak is actually a company founded in the 1920’s that provided background music to subscribers through direct electrical lines as opposed to radio (hence the term “piped music”). Despite later ubiquity in shopping malls and department stores, the earliest markets weren’t public retail venues, they were workplaces trying to improve productivity. The company did research to improve the effectiveness of music to this end and eventually started producing their own music. Early on Muzak was even recorded by popular orchestras and big bands of the day.

The style of music they produced was an early version of what came to be called “Beautiful Music”, a now extinct radio format from the 50’s and 60’s that splintered off and begat “Easy Listening” and then the insipid “Light Adult Contemporary” radio format (which is becoming less common itself). Beautiful Music was music that could be played in the background without distraction, creating a pleasant, soothing aural environment, like wall paper for the ears.

Anyone born before, say, 1980 is instantly familiar with this style of music. Instrumental, light strings, little percussion, organs, mallet instruments, orchestral arrangements, pop melodies and endless repetition. But today there’s almost nowhere you can hear this music. There are quite a few examples of Beautiful Music that were recorded and sold on LP: Mantovani, Percy Faith, and Henry Mancini for instance, but I imagine the vast majority of Beautiful Music/Easy Listening/Muzak has disappeared and will never be heard again, lost once and for all to our cultural memory. No one is producing this style of music today. It wasn’t composed or recorded to be sold to music fans and because of this, as far as I can tell, there are very few documents archiving it.

I’m fascinated by this sort of commercial music. Like any music, it has a history, star composers, and an evolution of style. But unlike most music it has virtually no fans. Many small musical subgenres have been recorded, analyzed, historically documented, and passed down through generations and musical evolution. In some cases the appeal of the music broadens with time. This music is different. Despite having immense, widespread audiences, it seems the only people who think about this music are the people who work in the industry that produces it. Instead of a devoted small core, this music has a completely oblivious broad audience. It has no crossover or hybridization, and doesn’t directly influence music that people actually listen to on purpose.

Soft music isn’t the only genre that suffers from this. The traditional music of serialized daytime soap operas has an interesting history too. The familiar motif of dramatic organ riffs sounded the way it did for a reason: originally the organ was used because it was less expensive and easy to produce for live radio and television. The melodies were written and performed to reinforce dramatic tension, particularly right before commercial breaks, and to signal the beginning and return to the program after commercial breaks. Organ music was replaced by orchestral arrangements in the 70’s because they could be easily recorded and reused. Orchestral recordings in turn were supplanted in the 80’s by the then new, cutting edge, synthesizers because of their flexibility. This early synthesizer music was groundbreaking at the time, but is now lost.

Classic game show music is a distinct and interesting form of utility music. Think about the themes to 1970’s era game shows with their uptempo brass arrangements. Unlike Beautiful Music’s soothing sounds or soap opera soundtracks’ sentimentality and melodrama these themes were intended to excite the listener, coming at you in short energetic bursts. There are still a few examples of this kind of music being used today (The Price is Right for instance) but for the most part its gone, unrecorded and unavailable.

Radio and TV news music is another idiom that has a long musical tradition. News Music is an entire industry with a number of production houses dedicated to writing and producing lead ins and themes. They even have awards (they’re called the Emmy’s). You can sample dozens of samples here: Its impossible to imagine the news without music, from the various arrangements of NPR’s “All Things Considered” (available hereto “The Situation Room” to the local news you watched with your parents as a kid. But if you’ve never heard News Music from the 60’s where could you hear it today?

Unlike pop, rock, jazz, classical, r&b, folk, or country its difficult to trace the musical lineage of any of these styles. As the original musicians composers and producers pass away I wonder if the unrecorded history of these styles of music will be lost forever. It would be a shame. Much of this music has cultural merit belied by its utility. The potential power of this music is great. I imagine there are a range of musical styles waiting to be revived in new contexts. Familiar to the ear yet distinct, unconventional, and uncommon, in the hands of a clever producer the recontextualization of these styles could be powerful, like eating a long lost favorite food from your childhood. I’d love to hear a Daft Punk interpretation of game show music or an A-Trak or Santogold song that sampled a classic horn bit from a news theme using the beeping sound of the incoming wire in the beat. Antony and the Johnsons could make an incredible “Beautiful Music” album. Any takers can thank me in the liner notes.

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house01The 2009 New York Asian Film festival is drawing to a close. The festival was as fantastic as always, offering an endless stream of Hong Kong gangsters, explosive arterial sprays, school girls, samurai, a bakery run by gay models, and a few dramatic moments in the middle.

By far the most surreal movie was the 1977 Japanese horror cult classic “House.” At a commercial and critical low point in the Japanese studio system, Toho decided to take a chance on a television commercial director named Nobuhiko Obayashi (you may know him from his youtube famous “Mandom” commercials). Obayashi described the Japanese studio system as “like a boring grown up” and decided that the most reasonable response was to have his then eleven year old daughter write the script to a horror movie.

The plot and dialogue have a bizarre logic and pacing that only a child could come up with. Characters come in and out of the movie at random. The sets and backgrounds appear as human sized dollhouses. The special effects are created with gallons of bright red corn syrup, marker drawings directly on film, extremely crude green screens, and puppets. The unsettlingly cheery soundtrack plays incessantly like a moog sythesizer battling a broken calliope with no off switch. In the end, no description I give could do this movie justice. No parody of Japanese horror could ever be as over the top as this original.

A little set up: The school girls, each named for their defining attribute (like the seven dwarves) have gone to stay with Gorgeous’s long lost auntie (the older woman with white hair in the clip). Her house may or may not be haunted and the girls have started to disappear or be attacked by inanimate objects in a Scooby-Doo sort of way. This is just a tiny taste of the absurdity of this movie.

If you like what you just watched, I highly recommend taking the time to install the Veoh player and watch the whole thing here.

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Unauthorized Design (part 1)/

Its arguable that in western cultures design is the most prolific generator of cultural artifacts. The breadth of what is affected by the domain of design is substantial, everything from alphabets to signs to clothes to furniture, interiors, buildings, parks, and cities is designed. Everything is packaged in design, and design does more than communicate what a thing is, it is instrumental in creating the meaning/value of the thing. Juliet said, “…that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet;” but I think most people would agree, a coke in a green can would taste funny. For better or for worse, a substantial part of what we call culture today is made by designers.

The problem is that design (or disciplines that design) is a specifically white, affluent, straight, European phenomenon. In fact, for the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to white, affluent, non-queer, male, protestant professionals working in disciplines of design as the Design Authority. The process of design, the designer client relationship, and the means of production were all created and controlled in service of this single dominant cultural power. Designer’s and their clients recognize other cultures as markets for design, but rarely ask them to participate. Conversely, when non-authorized designers create they are expected to be designers first, to subscribe to an existing culture of design, and to deny their own marginalized voices.

Try a little exercise: think about what makes traditional (ie, pre-colonial) Arabic architecture distinctly Arabic. Now think about what makes contemporary Arabic architecture Arabic (I’m sure I’ll be talking about Zaha Hadid later). What does feminine graphic design look like (hint: if you’re a man, you better not say “pink” or “spiritual”.) How is a Latino car different from a white car?

The problem lies not just in the typical socio/politico/economic mechanisms of subjugation (which are always at play) but in design itself. The markets and audiences for design are the same as for any cultural production. Yet while there is (limited and/or ghettoized) participation from marginalized voices in literature, theater, dance, music, film, art, cuisine, etc. those same voices are distinctly absent in design. There are only two reasons why this could be: Either design is culturally neutral and thus is well suited to all cultures or disciplines of design have explicitly implemented mechanisms of social and cultural exclusion.

Over the next weeks and months I plan on examining these issues in greater depth. As always, suggestions, criticisms, interpretations, and rebuttals will be more than welcome.

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Yello is a group that I find endlessly inspiring. Their early musical and video output is an perfect recipe: campy, sleazy, debonair, scary, funny, trashy, and unexpected. Enjoy.

a brief history: Yello is the collaboration between two Swiss Gentlemen, Boris Blank (1952-) and Dieter Meier (1945-). Neither of them is a trained musician. Blank is responsible for the musical output, Meier for lyrics, vocals, management, videos, and presumably art direction. Meier was born to a millionaire industrialist family, has been a successful conceptual artist since the 70’s, a sometimes professional poker player, alternate on the Swiss Olympic golf team, and has a ranch in Argentina. They are the same Yello that made that song “oh yeah” from Ferris Bueller and that Twix commercial, but don’t hold that against them.

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