Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Why the sound of classical music must change

Listening to the CD transfer of Louis Fremaux conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the ballet music from Massenet's Le Cid in Warner's indispensable Fremaux box reminded of just what a great achievment this disc is, both musically and technically. It was recorded by EMI in 1971 in the generous acoustic of the Great Hall, Birmingham University. Fremaux had been principal conductor of the CBSO for two years. His role as principal conductor was far different to that of today's peripatetic maestros, and in some seasons he conducted more than 70 concerts with the CBSO. At the time of the Massenet recording he had started the groundwork of transforming the provincial Birmingham band into the world-class ensemble it is today. This finessing continued throughout Fremaux's tenure in Birmingham despite his deteriorating relationship with the fractious orchestra. One of the beneficiaries of this transformation was the young Simon Rattle, who took over as principal conductor two years after Fremaux's abrupt and acrimonious departure in 1978.

Some of the credit for the enduring musical and sonic impact of this venerable recording must go to producer Brian Culverhouse and Stuart Eltham as balance engineer. In the opening Castillane of Le Cid the castanets can clearly be heard, but it is also very evident they are at the back of the orchestra. There is a sense of depth as well as breadth to the sound which is almost totally absent from today's recorded and orchestral sound. The BBC Radio 3 Proms relays are a prime example of today's one-dimensional sound where all the instruments appear in a line between the speakers, and all sense of depth on the soundstage is lost. Many reasons explain this apparently retrograde step. Time and cost pressures mean it is more efficient to use separate microphones for each section of the orchestra, so what you hear is the engineer's balance rather than the conductor's. Radio and TV simulcasts and live concert recordings mean microphones are placed out of sight close to the musicians and their instruments. And the predominance of headphone/earbud listening means stereo balances now have little relevance, as the binaural sound of headphones cannot reproduce a two-dimensional soundstage.

But the main reason why the startlingly lifelike balances from the Indian summer of EMI and Decca's classical recordings are an extinct species is that there is no longer any demand for them. Many readers will expect my post to deteriorate at this point into a let's wind the clock back rant. Sorry to disappoint those folks, but this path leads in the opposite direction. Classical music's new audience is conditioned to the 'in your face' sound' of head-fi and home cinema. If classical music wants a new audience, that audience should be given, within reason, what it wants.

The elusive new audience wants the 'up close and personal' sound it is conditioned to by listening to close balanced recordings and broadcasts. However received classical wisdom dictates that this new audience is denied that close sound in the concert hall, and in particular in the new generation of 'acoustically perfect' halls - acoustically perfect as defined by 19th century conventions. Which may well be why classical music is failing to gain traction with new audiences in the concert hall but is making an impact on streaming services such as Spotify.

I am not advocating turning the clock back. Instead I am advocating winding it forward by exploring how to give new audiences the sonic experience they want in the concert hall, instead of building new museums of sound. Digital technology underpins streaming services, the primary delivery platform for classical music. Yet digital sound shaping in concert halls is still considered heretical, despite successful precedents. Sound is impermanent: Bruno Walter's Mozart sounded very different to that of Frans Bruggen and the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, but both are valid and both are sublime. Yet the very cultural commentators who chant the mantra that classical music must change refuse to accept that the sound must change if the art form is to remain relevant in the 21st century.

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Monday, October 22, 2018

Online trolls and flamers are now history

An innovative app has been developed in Japan to curb online hatred. Priests at the Kokujo-ji Buddhist temple in the Niigata Prefecture have set up the page seen above on the temple’s website where followers can upload up their own bad experiences with online trolls and flamers. All submissions are transcribed onto thin wooden strips which are fed to a sacred purifying fire by Buddhist priests at the temple. It is believed this immolation will prevent the bad karma of negative energy and hatred stirred up during these online interactions from spreading.

The sacred cleansing fire ritual was initiated as part of Kokujo-ji’s traditional Goma fire ceremony on 7th October. This ritual is conducted annually to neutralize the harmful negative energies of human desires and emotions. The Goma ceremony seen below is believed to have evolved from the Vedic Agnicayana ritual and can be performed for the benefit of individuals, a specific group or community, or for all sentient beings. The consecrated fire is viewed as having a powerful spiritual and psychological cleansing effect that destroys negative energies, thoughts, and desires, and it is legitimate to use the Goma ceremony for dealing with secular matters. Rumours of a new dead bird emoji on Twitter to indicate that an inflammatory tweet has been uploaded to the sacrificial fire have not been confirmed.

Story and photos via Buddhistdoor Global. My social media accounts were deleted before they could be fed to the sacred fire. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Big data is face-recognizing you

At some point in the near future the harvesting of facial recognition images will replace the harvesting of Facebook profiles as the new technology cause célèbre. This prediction is prompted by the following chilling assertion from George Thaw, the CEO of scanning solutions developer Fuel3D:
3D facial recognition technology has traditionally been used in security, but thanks to advancements in technology and machine learning algorithms it now has massive potential to disrupt the retail industry and set brands apart by redefining customer experience.
Fuel3D's core technology platform was developed initially for medical imaging. Like the notorious Cambridge Analytica, Fuel3D's proprietary technology is a product of Oxbridge academia. Its BioVolume oncology application was developed at Oxford University more than a decade ago, and the company's registered office is at Oxford Science Park with another office at Greenville, North Carolina. The filed accounts state that the principal activity Fuel3D is the development, sale and application of 3D imaging technology. There are no grounds whatsoever to suggest that Fuel3D is motivated by anything than the standard ethical commercial ambitions and, doubtless, numerous other companies are developing similar technology. However this should not preclude using Fuel3D as a case study to raise generic concerns about the retail application of facial recognition technologies.

As pointed out in the quote, facial recognition had its earliest applications in the security industry. Two examples are EU passports, which use facial recognition to compare a scan of the subject's face with a photo held on the passport's chip, and the Apple iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy phones which have face ID security. Fuel3D's website states that it is developing applications for the retail sector encompassing personalised cosmetics and customised skincare, performance sports eyewear and head protection, custom footwear and clothing, and custom eyewear and virtual try-on. All these applications require a high resolution and extremely accurate three dimensional image of the client's face to be captured at point of sale. A Fuel3D video on YouTube convincingly demonstrates how these images can be captured very easily and quickly, while another video demonstrates how a facial image from a Fuel3D application can be printed to produce a very accurate 3D model of the subject's face.

The resolution of the images captured by facial recognition technology far exceeds the relatively crude photos used in biometric passports and other forms of photo ID. We now live in an age where the value of data is far greater than that of the software used to capture and store it. Facebook's commitment to facial recognition is widely known, and we have seen the value and power of Facebook's woolly personal profile data. Given the porous boundaries between commerce and security, the value of a data set linking Facebook's profile data to highly accurate three dimensional facial images captured in the retail environment is very obvious. And it gets worse: because another major player in the field is Amazon whose Rekognition application can, to quote their website "detect, analyze, and compare faces for a wide variety of user verification, people counting, and public safety use cases". Widespread concern has been expressed about the supply of Amazon Rekognition technology to enforcement agencies.

Encouraging the public to voluntarily provide a highly accurate face image at point of sale takes the danger of the misuse of facial recognition technology to a new and much higher level. Anyone thinking that this is just 1984-style scaremongering is referred to a recent Guardian article which reports a psychologist as claiming that using facial recognition software, artificial intelligence can detect a person's sexuality and politics. The article explains how psychologist Michal Kosinski published a controversial paper showing that face-analysing algorithms could distinguish between photographs of gay and straight people, and goes on to tell how his work aroused interest within the Russian government. Paths converge here as Michal Kosinski's research was undertaken at Cambridge University and has links to the infamous Cambridge Analytica data harvesting. Given recent allegations of electoral interference by Russia, the possibility of a data set of merged Facebook profile and high resolution facial images being analysed by AI to interpolate political allegiance is very disturbing.

Our obsessive love affair with new technology means Facebook's user base has remained remarkably resilient despite several recent high profile exposés of data abuse. So it is certain that facial recognition applications will be avidly embraced as part of our retail therapy, and once again a new technology will be presumed innocent regardless of any evidence to the contrary. But beware; because big data is face-recognizing you.

Header image is from an Andy Tran YouTube video. My social media accounts are deleted. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Friday, October 19, 2018

Ancient legends and new technologies

That photo shows a statue of Daedalus on the clifftop at Agia Galini on Crete. As part of my noise cancelling enabled concert hall without walls experiment I had the pleasure of experiencing Icarus from the Paul Winter Consort's eponymous album at the very point where legend tells that Icarus and his father the master craftsman Daedalus started their fateful flight. The album was produced in 1971 by none other than the legendary George Martin who was at a loose end following the break up of the Beatles. There is an auspicious link to a more successful pioneering flight, as George Martin recounts in his autobiography All You Need Is Ears:
The album was called Icarus, and was, I think, the finest record I have ever made. It didn't sell particularly well, but a lot of people took notice of it. And it had one special distinction. The title song, 'Icarus', also went out as a single, and David Darling's [the Consort's cellist] brother gave a copy to one of the Apollo crews. That was how it came to be the first record taken to the moon, though I don't think they had the facilities for playing it!
'The finest record I have ever made' is great praise indeed, and this album truly reached for the stars. Icarus was a Ralph Towner composition which became a jazz standard. The Paul Winter Consort's insanely talented multi-musician Collin Wallcot went on to play on the three priceless albums from World Music pioneers Codona before joining his Consort colleagues Towner and Paul McCandless in the genre-busting Oregon. But tragically Collin Wallcot died in a car crash in East Germany while the band was touring in 1984. My experiment with a concert hall sans frontières proves, if any proof is needed, that new technology can deliver enormous benefits in the right set and setting. But as Icarus and his father discovered, when new technology flies too close to the sun, disaster ensues.

With thanks to Michael Murie for confirming the George Martin backstory in 2011. My social media accounts are deleted. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Zorba the Buddha

A recent discovery has been the music of Efi Markoulaki who is seen above. She was born in Athens in 1960 and has been a member of the Greek Composers Union since 2004. Among the composers who have influenced her through personal contact are Jonathan Harvey and Toshio Hosokawa. The Greek cellist Michael Heupel has recorded Efi Markoulaki's Cretan Suite for cello on Afierossis, a CD of 20th & 21st century works for solo cello. The disc is released on the German Ars label and delivers a splendidly visceral cello sound from its SACD layer.

Efi Markoulaki's Cretan Suite is most definitely not the usual folkloric pastiche. In her sleeve note Efi Markoulaki writes that: I "attempted to 'listen again' to a music that is deeply ingrained in my lived experience and my memories... My aim was to highlight the fundamental concepts of the source material for each movement while linking it to my personal aesthetic". She makes no allusions to supermundane agendas, but speculating about them is intriguing if not necessarily accurate. Crete's most celebrated cultural icon is the author of Zorba the Greek Nikos Kazantzakis. In Vienna in 1922 Kazantzakis studied Buddhist scriptures and began a play dramatising the Buddha's life. Writing in the autobiographical Report to Greco he describes how: "of all the people the earth has begotten, Buddha stands resplendently at the summit, an absolutely pure spirit". The wisdom traditions of the East extended beyond Nikos Kazantzakis, and in The Strong Wind from the East Markos Madias describes how Hinduism and Buddhism - particularly Zen - influenced prominent Greek intellectuals of the twentieth century including Nobel Laureate Giorgis Seferis. On more disputatious ground, the controversial Indian mystic and teacher Osho coined the term Zorba the Buddha to describe the anthropomorphic result of blending temporal and absolute reality. The term has transcended Osho's dalliances and has been adopted by a number of spiritual movements.

Intriguingly these strong winds from the East also blow through Efi Markoulaki's musical influences. Jonathan Harvey's debt to Buddhism has been covered here several times and Toshio Hosokawa considers the compositional process to be instinctively associated with the concepts of Zen and its symbolic interpretation of nature. However Efi Markoulaki's Cretan Suite really does not need speculative sub-agendas to make its case. One of the movements played by the Suite's dedicatee Michael Heupel can be auditioned on a YouTube video, and its provenance is indicated by the company it keeps on the cellist's recital disc:

William Walton: Passacaglia
Bertold Hummel: Fantasia II “In Memoriam Pablo Casals”
Krzysztof Penderecki: Per Slava
György Kurtág: Pilinsky Janos: Gerard de Neval & Memoriam Aczél György
Miklós Rózsa: Toccata Capricciosa
Efi Markoulaki: Cretan Suite
Aulis Sallinen: Elegia Sebastian Knight’ille
György Ligeti: Sonata for solo cello

No review samples used in this post. My social media accounts are deleted. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).