spring at the media lab

I’ve had the honor to be a collaborator at the MIT Media Lab for the past couple months. In addition to being able to lurk in one of the coolest technology-centric places on the planet this also enabled me to attend the recent Spring 2012 Member Meeting. This had in previous years been referred to as “Sponsor Week” but under the leadership of Joi Ito it has been re-branded and more importantly opened up to interested outsiders via web streaming of all of the presentations and panel sessions. What the outsiders still didn’t get was the hands on demonstrations and discussions in each of the groups on the many and varied projects underway. My time spent there over the last few months has been focused on one specific project, the Ambient Furniture Project with David Rose as part of the Tangible Media Group. While coming and going I would always see lots of busy researchers but never got a chance to delve into what they were doing. This event enabled me to walk around and see some of these most amazing projects in action. While the “camera that can see around corners” is clearly mind-blowing, there are many additional interesting projects underway, some with some very relevant applications. Here are small sampling of my favorites…. The NETRA project in that same Camera Culture Group has developed a portable and inexpensive solution for estimating refractive errors in the human eye. This has exciting implications for getting quality eye care to underprivileged areas of the world. In the Affective Computing Group the Cardiocam project is a low-cost, non-contact measurement system for physiological signals such as heart rate and breathing rate using a basic webcam.  The High-Low Tech Group focuses on integrating high and low technological materials and processes further enabling the DIY culture that is flourishing around the internet these days. This is also the same group that is developing a build-it-yourself cellphone. The Lifelong Kindergarten Group is getting ready to release version 2.0 of their wonderful development tool, Scratch, which makes it easy for users of all ages to create their own interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations and share them online. There are many, many more deeper and wilder projects. The videos from the sessions (Tuesday & Wednesday)show highlights from many of these and are well worth watching. The Media Lab is an amazing space and seems to often be two or three steps ahead of the rest of the world in technology applications.

Side note – Joi Ito has also assembled an amazing advisory council among whose members include Peter Gabriel. I managed to talk with him on two different occasions and was amazed that even though I was struggling to not be a stuttering fanboy he took the time to ask me about the work I was doing and even apologized to me for not having been able to come by and see it in more detail. This fanboy was very happy.

TEDxVille

ImageWhat city in the United States is second only to New York in the number of artists per capita? Unless you live there you probably would not guess that it would be Somerville, Massachusetts. That statistic along with its proximity next door to Cambridge, one of the country’s centers of innovation and technology development, made Somerville a natural choice for a TEDx event. Historically Somerville encompassed many railway and industrial lands and was home to the birth of Marshmallow Fluff, the Bertucci’s restaurant chain and the chain that would become Stop & Shop. Today Somerville is a wonderful mix of students, artists, working class people and demographically it is a mix of long-time Irish-, Italian- and Portuguese- American residents and newer immigrant populations from Brazil, Haiti, El Salvador, India, South Korea and Nepal.

The day-long independent TED event brought more than 25 presenters and at least five different musical acts to the stage at the Arts at the Armory facility, a repurposed armory that now is home to a wide range of visual arts, dance, theater and musical performances. The presenters at TEDxSomerville ranged from the mayor of Somerville, Joseph A. Curtatone, to Joe Grafton, the Director of Somerville Local First, a key player in the advancement of the local movement in Somerville, to Brian Whitman, a co-founder of EchoNest, a music Discovery platform to Monica Poole, one of the organizers of Occupy Boston, to Alex Feldman, performer and comedian who specializes in non-verbal communication methods. The presentation of the concept of “Community Supported Manufacturing” from Chris Templeman was particularly interesting. He talked about a great concept for a community funded cooperative to make every day appliances be much nicer constructions.

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The music included contemplative folk from Jenee Halstead, old-school analog experimental synth from Keith Fullerton Whitman, and energetic sounds from both Grooversity and Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band. The “house band” that played between the sessions was the Michael J. Epstein Memorial Library, who wrote an entirely new set of songs, each one themed with the material from the presenters. Sheer brilliance!

The truly eclectic nature of the presenters, the art installations and delicious food from local restaurants (the Chocolate from Taza and the Ethiopian food from Fasika was particularly delicious) made this event a perfect TED experience.og

guitar circle

After attending the MIT forum last night the stars all finally aligned properly and I had an opportunity to see and hear my friend DavidK‘s Guitar Circle New England. They were the live music at the Thirsty Ear on the MIT campus and since I was already there I had no excuses. The music was really nice. The five-piece band consists of all hollow-body, 6-string, steel-string guitars and the players follow the methodology of Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft using New Standard Tuning. This makes for wonderful arrangements with relatively wide dynamic range for guitar-only pieces. I particularly liked the arrangements of traditional “Morning Has Broken” that used some of the guitar melodies found in Cat Stevens’ famous version and the slow melodious “Love Is Green” from Jeff Beck’s seminal Wired album. I don’t know any of the other pieces played but they ranged from contemporary classical to traditional classical to some serious King Crimson/ Robert Fripp sounding material. If you are a fan of guitar music and have never heard a Guitar Craft group play then definitely seek out Guitar Circle New England.

indie films

A short while back we attended a showing of a film at the Somerville Theater as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston. The director and main actor were there to discuss the film after the showing. Last night we had a very similar experience with a different film at our local favorite theater, the Regent Theater in Arlington.

Turn The River
This film starred one of my favorites, Famke Janssen, best known to me and other fanboys as Jean Grey/Phoenix from the X-Men film franchise. In this film she plays a down-and-out pool hustler trying to get enough money to leave town with her son who lives in sole custody with her ex-husband. I really liked this film as it had a great indie feel with a solid cast and a great post-rock score by the Clogs. Famke and the writer/director Chris Elgeman were there for QA after the film. She was as beautiful in person as she appears on film and seems to be fairly knowledgeable about her craft. I hope this turns into a good dramatic breakthrough for her although some of the reviews from its wider release were not so great.

On Broadway
This locally produced film premiered last year at the same festival. Last night we were lucky enough to have a viewing where Dave McLaughlin (writer/director), Lance Greene (actor/producer) and Bill Janovitz (writer of the musical score) were all there to discuss the film. Before the film showed we had the pleasure of a few acoustic numbers by Bill, who Stephanie and I know personally so it was quite fun. He even dedicated one of the songs to us! The film was a very good classic telling of the struggle one can go through when they find their muse. In this case it was told in the form of a Boston-based Irish-American played by Joey McIntyre (yes that one from NKOTB) and supported by a great cast that included another great local, Eliza Dushku. The Boston scenes were great especially one memorable moment on the T. The whole evening had great layers of self-reference and the basis of all of it in the classic Irish story-telling motif was perfect.

near mux

nf_logo.gifA while back Hieronymus posted about a nice web resource called Muxtape. I’ve used it now on a few occasions to share songs with friends. Today I am wishing I was getting ready for NEARFest this weekend so I decided to put together a muxtape from this year’s NEARFest artists. Most of these tracks are available on the official site but I thought it would be fun to put them one from each artist together as a “tape” to share. NEARFest is an annual weekend-long progressive rock festival in Bethlehem PA. Unlike the Bonnaroo inspired trend this is a very civilized, indoor event with one stage and a tight lineup of progressive rock artists. In addition there are a couple of vending rooms where one can waste a lot of money on hard-to-find music. I went for the first time last year with DavidK. He is kind of busy this year so he couldn’t go and my schedule made it difficult too. Oh well for now juts listen to the good music and maybe next year….

Aksak Maboul

cra002cm.gifBack to the list….I gave a number of listens Aksak Maboul "Un Peu De L’ame Des Bandits". I’m not quite sure what to make of it other than I like the music overall. The opening piece has a bit too much Yoko-like vocalization for me but after that the grooves groove and the jams jam. The Beligan band provides a multi-instrumental aspect that goes over real well, with the bowed string, reeds and accordion giving an overall cabaret-like feel while the standard rock form of guitar, keyboards, bass and drum give the music its jam-band feel. Wikipedia notes that the more pure avant-garde portions delve into the almost post rock and almost ambient feel and I tend to agree. Well worth the listen.

busy

It is a busy day/night in the Boston/Cambridge area…the Red Sox are playing at Fenway in a surprisingly tough battle for first against the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays…the historic NBA finals rivalry of the Boston Celtics versus the LA Lakers is rekindled at the Garden…Harry Potter’s visionary JK Rowling is giving the commencement speech at Harvard…but me, I’ll be rockin’ and mellowin’ to the sounds of the T-Bone Burnett-backed Robert Plant/Alison Krauss show at the Harborlights..er..Bank-whatever Pavilion.

AHS Music

One of the best things in the Arlington School system is the music program. From elementary school all the way through high school music is encouraged and taught with much care and passion. The culmination of this is the annual AHS Pops concert where all of the music groups at the High School perform in a three-hour spectacle showcasing all of the talent. The whole program is presented twice, once on Saturday night and then again on Sunday afternoon. We went today and enjoyed a program that featured these highlights:
– the Concert band doing Henry Mancini’s Drummers Delight and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with an amazing piano solo by a freshman.
– The Women’s Choir singing Dream a Little Dream
– The Honors Orchestra performing two original Tangos by music director Pasquale Tassone, who is retiring this year after decades of service
– The Madrigal Singers performing a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah
– The Jazz band playing an absolutely rocking piece, Tank by Yoho Kanno as well as a Dizzy Gillespie piece and a rousing rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown
– The Mixed Chorus signing a number of tunes including Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In
– The String Orchestra playing a virtuoso piece, Blue Fire Fiddler
– And finally the Symphony Orchestra plus the Chorus performing Solemn Overture “1812” by Tchaikovsky. I heard the orchestra play this piece earlier this year but with the chorus of 80 or so voices it was really moving.
There were a few down points like the overall length of the program and the inclusion on a few too many songs of Jennifer Truesdale (she was good but it took away from the youth performances), an alum of AHS who has gone on to a career in singing. But overall it was great to see some of the youth that I know so well and so many others performing such great music with such confidence. A great afternoon of music and hopefully a great sign of the future for music in Arlingon.

idol superstar

I have purposefully managed to stay away from any artists or performances presented on American Idol…until the other night. My older son has discovered this show through his friends and insisted on watching it (I wanted the Red Sox game). I learned that the show occasionally features a guest artist who becomes part of the theme for number for shows. In this case it was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Knowing that there were going to be a number of torturous Phantom of the Opera tunes sung, I left the room. I came back a little later to see Mr. Lloyd Webber conversing with a contestant, Carly Smithson. He convinced her to sing Superstar from Jesus Christ Superstar. I have to admit it was pretty good – shortened quite  a bit for American TV viewers attention spans, but still pretty good.  Of course, JCS is one of my favorite pieces of music ever so she would have had to completely butcher it to make me not like it. I still don’t like American Idol and I will not watch it again unless forced to…unless the guest artist is Christian Vander and they contestants have to sing their pieces in Kobaïan….but a good JCS rendition is not something to pass up…some favorites:

The Original

Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection

Gethsemane, Vanden Plas from Christ 0

Heaven on Their Minds, Queensrÿche from Take Cover

noise

The next two NWW list items remind me a lot of the type of noise I was making in the late 70’s and early 80’s with my guitar and a little help from my friends.

one%2Bpoint1.jpgOne Point Music from Pekka Airaksinen is a lot of loopy (as in tape loops) weirdness that sounds a lot like the tape I made with my friends Bruce, Mike and Kaz at Mike’s house in Long Island. Back in 1981 we spent a weekend with a setup of two reel-to-reel tape decks in as close to what we could replicate Robert Fripp was doing in those days. While slightly mind-altered, we recorded me and Kaz playing the guitar while Mike fiddled with the patches and tape speeds. We fell quite a bit short of Frippertronics but we sure had fun making some really strange sounds. Someday I should take the cassette I have of that and make a digital archive. Pekka Airaksinen’s release sounds a lot like someone doing exactly the same sort of toying around. Probably ground-breaking for its time – certainly worth the mention by NWW for its influence, but hardly worth the listen today.

airway1.jpgThe second is Airway Live at Lace which sounds very much like the sort of long, mind-numbing guitar, bass and drum banging / feedback we used to do in the Sciscenti basement with Bruce on drums, John F on bass and me and Mark S on guitar. Again this was probably very edgy back in the early 70’s but by the late 70’s my friends and I were doing it as a routine. My understanding from Wikipedia is that during this apparently seminal performance Airway were playing a variety of subliminal messages beneath the wall of sound. Somehow the art in this one is lost on me.

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