Notes about music

January 8, 2022 permalink

Swinging the Dream

On stage and dressed in attire for Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream": Butterfly McQueen as Puck, Maxine Sullivan as Titania and Louis Armstrong as Bottom
On stage and dressed in attire for Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream": Butterfly McQueen as Puck, Maxine Sullivan as Titania and Louis Armstrong as Bottom

In 1939 there was a Broadway production of a jazz-themed Midsummer Night’s Dream called Swinging the Dream, featuring Butterfly McQueen, Louis Armstrong, Moms Mabley, Dorothy Dandridge, and many others (a cast of 110!), with music performed by Benny Goodman’s sextet joining the pit orchestra. It ran for less than 2 weeks before collapsing as a failure.

From a NY Times writeup of an early 2021 effort to revisit Swinging the Dream:

“I just want to know what happened, why that lineup crashes, and then why the show seems so entirely to disappear,” said Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“The critics are telling us that it did not hang together, that the mash-up did not work,” Kwei-Armah [artistic director of the Young Vic] said. “I’m interested in why it didn’t work. Also, just because they said that it didn’t work doesn’t mean that it didn’t work!”

Even if it was a failed concept on Broadway, it’s definitely an interesting inflection point for American theater, music, and race (it’s telling that the famous and celebrated Black performers were still relegated to the “secondary” roles in the play, the fairies and mechanicals, rather than acting in the lead love interest roles…)

April 25, 2014 permalink

On the Clash, Winchell’s Donuts, and 1980s Austin

My mind was somewhat blown when I discovered that the Clash filmed the video for Rock the Casbah here in Austin, TX back in 1981 (go watch it, it’s on YouTube). It became a trivia game amongst my office of long-time Austinites to try to identify all of the various shots in the video, most of which are at businesses and hangouts long gone (you’ll see the original Posse at 24th & Guadalupe, the Alamo Hotel, the Burger King on the Drag, the gas station across from Oat Willie’s on 29th, the old City Coliseum music venue, etc.).

Before I go into the long Austin-nerd story below, I learned a couple of other amazing things about this video via this great read:

  • The director of photography was Barry Sonnenfeld, who would later go on to film Raising Arizona, When Harry Met Sally, and direct the Men in Black trilogy and The Addams Family.
  • The “Sheik” and the “Orthodox Jew” characters were played by amateur actors. The two of them hung out with Barry Sonnenfeld that night at the Liberty Lunch, and met a couple of young dudes in town scouting for a location for their first feature film: Ethan and Joel Coen!

Now onto the deeper trivia investigation…

One long-standing mystery was the quick shot of the armadillo traipsing in front of a Winchell’s Donuts (a chain that hasn’t been seen here in decades). I came back to this recently and asked for help from Twitter and Facebook friends, and the best clue came from this excellent post from Troy Dillinger about the early days of MTV-era punk rock, Joe Ely, and the Clash. That post cites the location as S. Congress & Oltorf, so I jumped over to Google Street View to confirm, and lo and behold I think I’ve found the shot, documented with the photo below.

But then controversy: multiple people wrote to me to say “no no, it was South Lamar and Barton Skyway!” or “I remember going to that place, it was on Duval near UT, close to the Posse East”. This kind of gnawing uncertainty has a way of festering in my trivia-addled mind, so I needed to confirm for sure. Also, my officemates were now even more perplexed.


I work across the street from the Briscoe Center for American History, which conveniently has phone books for many Texas cities dating back to the early 1900s. Disguised as a researcher, I had them pull the Austin phone books for 1979–1983, and I looked up Winchell’s Donuts. Only three locations were listed, none on South Congress or Lamar or even the implausible Duval. What the heck, yo.

Thankfully, my boss earlier pointed out the red DRUGS sign on the building in the background (early subliminal messaging in a music video?? ;). We couldn’t read the blurry hexagonal sign just behind the Winchell’s, but this drugstore sign was a great clue. The 1980s phone books listed a Revco Drugs at 2301 S. Congress, exactly the address where I took this Street View shot. The logo looks right, if you can imagine what the 1980s stylized version would be, with the outsized script R. Also, Revco was purchased in the late 1990s by CVS, which exists at that location today, and to my eyes it looks like they just swapped logos on the hexagonal sign.

Further evidence: another shot in the Clash video was filmed outside a Victorian-style house, which is now a Wells Fargo bank right across the street from this Congress & Oltorf location.


Hat tip to one Daniel Lugo for pointing out the identical 3 poles and fire hydrant, and to everyone else who wrote to share links or other anecdotes about 1980s Austin!

UPDATE October, 2015:

I’ve heard from a number of nice people with personal connections to this location and even with this video shoot, but a reader just now pointed out that I got so caught up on the Revco detail that I neglected to mention where the stupid Winchell’s Donuts was exactly!

That reader speculates that the location is where the Subway currently is (2315 S Congress Ave), and I believe that’s true. The double-poled Subway sign is likely yet another clue / confirmation. Unless you know otherwise!

April 25, 2014 permalink

Today I Walked Around Near the Alamo Where on

Today, I walked around near the Alamo, where on March 6, 1836, Santa Anna’s soldiers, who greatly outnumbered the Texans behind the compound’s walls, killed or captured all those inside. Several days later, in April, the Battle of San Jacinto would swing the pendulum the other way: The Mexican army would be smashed, General Santa Anna would be captured and Texas would be born. Approximately 151 years later, The Butthole Surfers would release their Locust Abortion Technician album, giving people all over the world another reason to like Texas.

April 1, 2013 permalink

The Ethiopians — Hong Kong Flu

`The Ethiopians — Hong Kong Flu. Heard on today’s Jamaican Gold radio show, I think this might be the catchiest song about infectious disease I’ve heard in a long time. Part of the “beautiful melodies telling me terrible things” category of music, to paraphrase Tom Waits.

(PS to the folks of the 1960s: in the future, we use our magic-like portable computer video screens to watch recordings of other people’s records.)

December 24, 2012 permalink

Dave Brubeck on Guaraldi Peanuts Music

There is a mixture of sadness and joy in the Peanuts characters. Their all-too-human disappointments and minor triumphs are reflected in Guaraldi’s music. It is a child’s reality.

December 23, 2012 permalink

Slime Mold Music

What happens if you grow slime mold on electrodes hooked into a sound oscillator? This, evidently. Slime mold music. Science!

The recorded signals from the electrodes were eventually fed into an audio oscillator, with each recording representing a different frequency. By mixing the sounds generated from all of the recordings the researchers were able to create an eerie type of music – reminiscent of the sound effects used on early science fiction movies. As an added feature, the researchers report that they can cause different sounds to be generated by shining light on different parts of the mold, in effect tuning their bio-instrument to allow for the creation of different types of music.

I’ll picture the setup looking something like a Bleep Labs Bit Blob.

(Via arXiv)

July 6, 2012 permalink

Internet Protocol over Xylophone Players

Somehow I missed a lecture and demo of this new networking technology in Austin back in May: Internet Protocol Over Xylophone Players (IPoXP) (PDF whitepaper), which puts a human element in the middle of sending IP packets from one computer to another. From Wired UK:

As an LED lights up, the human participant strikes the corresponding key on the xylophone. Piezo sensors are attached to each xylophone, so that they are able to sense when a note is played on the other xylophone. The Arduino for the receiving computer senses the note and then converts it back into hexadecimal code. And when the second computer sends a return packet, the order of operations is reversed.

The data can be sent at a rate of roughly 1 baud, which is still faster than the earlier, um, IP over Avian Carriers technology.

Assuming the musicians don’t get bored. It takes about 15 minutes to transmit a single packet, assuming the musician doesn’t hit any wrong notes. That’s rare, though, apparently. Geiger told NetworkWorld: “Humans are really terrible interfaces.”

Pedant note: yes, they are using a glockenspiel in the photo above, not a true xylophone, but I guess X is a cooler letter to have in your acronym…

(Via ACM Tech News)

July 20, 2011 permalink

RIP Alex Steinweiss, Creator of Album Covers

I’ve wondered where the idea of music albums as discrete packaged works of art came from, and now I know. From the New York Times: Alex Steinweiss, Originator of Artistic Album Covers, Dies at 94

“The way records were sold was ridiculous,” Mr. Steinweiss said in a 1990 interview. “The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal.” Despite concern about the added costs, he was given the approval to come up with original cover designs.

His first cover, for a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs performed by an orchestra, showed a high-contrast photo of a theater marquee with the title in lights. The new packaging concept was a success: Newsweek reported that sales of Bruno Walter’s recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony increased ninefold when the album cover was illustrated.

Mr. Steinweiss also created a distinctive handwriting script that he used on many of his album covers, which came to be known as the Steinweiss Scrawl (recently resurrected as the font Steinweiss Script by designer Michael Doret).

Mr. Steinweiss said he was destined to be a commercial artist. In high school he marveled at his classmates who “could take a brush, dip it in some paint and make letters,” he recalled. “So I said to myself, if some day I could become a good sign painter, that would be terrific!“

More good information about his career and innovations (including diagrams of his LP packaging) are available on this page about his work for the Remington record label.

March 18, 2011 permalink

Its the Dialogue of the Pieces

It’s the dialogue of the pieces, not the pieces themselves, that creates aesthetic success.

January 16, 2011 permalink

Tom Lehrer Ronald Searle

Awesome thing that I didn’t realize I had on my bookshelf: the Tom Lehrer sheet music songbook I’ve had since I was a kid was illustrated by cartoonist Ronald Searle. I must have been unfamiliar with Searle the last time I looked through this book — his scratchy style complements Lehrer’s acerbic wit nicely.

The whole book, “Too Many Songs By Tom Lehrer with not enough drawings by Ronald Searle”, is available for perusal on Scribd, in case you’re the sort that enjoys songs about masochism, the periodic table, bull fighting, nuclear annihilation, and Ivy League snobbery…

December 5, 2010 permalink

The Metrics of Rap

Language Log drops the science on the metrics of rap and hiphop, as part of a larger article on Yale University’s recently-published, transcription-error-prone The Anthology of Rap. The above image illustrates the meter of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s SuperRappin’.

As always in such cases, there’s an interesting question whether this should be thought of as a superficial deviation from an underlyingly square rhythm, or rather as a different draw from a set of available polyrhythmic patterns. For some more discussion, see e.g. “Rock syncopation: Stress shifts or polyrhythms?”, 11/26/2007. Note in any case that the mixture of four-beat and three-beat (lyric) lines evokes the traditional English ballad meter, whatever we’re to make of the variations in alignment.

November 14, 2010 permalink

Delia Derbyshire Interview

The BBC will be airing a never-before-seen interview this week with Delia Derbyshire, the woman who co-composed and performed the original Doctor Who theme, probably the most famous piece of purely electronic music. For a great account of the production (no synths back then, only novel, painstaking work involving test tone equipment, razor blades and tape!), check out Mark Ayres’s A History of the Doctor Who Theme.

(The interview will air on Inside Out, November 15 at 7:30pm on BBC One – not sure when/if those of us not in the UK will be able to see it, though…)

November 11, 2010 permalink

Frank Zappa on “What‘s My Line”

[Video no longer available]

Frank Zappa as the mystery guest on What’s My Line. Pretty dry, to be honest, although some might find interest in hearing him go into surprising detail about the video-to-film process used in filming 200 Motels (it was shot and edited in PAL video then upconverted to 35mm, a novel process at the time).

So why do I post this? Because at the 2:50 mark he references the awesome Time Life photo of him and his parents, confessing that it was “too purple.”

(Via They Might Be Giants’ Facebook)

September 6, 2010 permalink

Somewhere between Mozart and Bach

From Scientific American’s Observations blog, a report on a shared emotional code between music and speech:

Almost everyone thinks “Greensleeves” is a sad song—but why? Apart from the melancholy lyrics, it’s because the melody prominently features a musical construct called the minor third, which musicians have used to express sadness since at least the 17th century. The minor third’s emotional sway is closely related to the popular idea that, at least for Western music, songs written in a major key (like “Happy Birthday”) are generally upbeat, while those in a minor key (think of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”) tend towards the doleful.

The tangible relationship between music and emotion is no surprise to anyone, but a study in the June issue of Emotion suggests the minor third isn’t a facet of musical communication alone—it’s how we convey sadness in speech, too. When it comes to sorrow, music and human speech might speak the same language.

Or to quote Nigel Tufnel: “It’s part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I’m working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don’t know why.”

September 3, 2010 permalink

Korg M01

Nobuyoshi Sano (composer on the arcade series Ridge Racer and Tekken) and Yasunori Mitsuda (who worked on Secret of Mana and composed the music for Chrono Trigger, along with a number of other Square games) have started a new studio called Detune to continue their work on bringing synthesizer emulators to the Nintendo DS. Here Sano demos their upcoming KORG M01 release, which replicates the late 1980’s sounds of the KORG M1.

(Via GameSetWatch)

July 5, 2010 permalink


The world’s only working (modern) Pallophotophone plays 80-year-old NBC radio broadcasts:

The pallophotophone was an early audio recorder created by GE researcher Charles Hoxie in 1922. Rather than using magnetic wire or lacquer disks, the device captured audio waveforms on sprocketless 35 mm film as a series of 12 parallel tracks reflected from a vibrating mirror. It was used to record some of the world’s oldest surviving radio broadcasts on Schenectady, New York radio station WGY between 1929 and 1931.

As a forgotten optical medium, I guess its more modern analog would be laserfilm discs. Sort of working along the right path, but just not practical compared to other media coming out at the time. There’s more about the rediscovered pallphotophone recordings on the GE Reports blog.

(Via Coudal)

June 27, 2010 permalink

Bit Trip Runner

BIT.TRIP.RUNNER, one of the best games I’ve played this summer. A hypnotically synaesthetic music platformer, something like an inspired cross between Vib-Ribbon and Michel Gondry’s Star Guitar video. Well worth the few bucks if you’ve got a Wii.

(Seen above is a run of level 1-11 by YouTube user NintenDaan1, the level that I’m currently stuck playing over and over again trying to get all of the bonus gold…)

May 14, 2010 permalink

N.W.A. Posse Cover

Whatever Happened to N.W.A.’s Posse? LA Weekly tracks down all of the guys featured on the cover of N.W.A.’s lesser known first album, perhaps the first photo of gangsta rap. A handful of them were only there to give rides to their friends. For the others, though, this album launched careers that would redefine the 1990’s music landscape (see if you can spot Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren…). Here’s one incredible bit of trivia:

When N.W.A signed with Priority, the group was only the label’s second signed act. The other was the California Raisins. That’s right: The first noncompilation album released by Priority was The California Raisins Sing the Hit Songs. The second was Straight Outta Compton.

March 1, 2010 permalink

Ren and Stimpy Production Music

WOW, I’m about four years late on this one, but in case anyone else hasn’t come across this: a fan has collected and cataloged a huge chunk (nearly 7½ hours worth!) of the incidental music from Ren & Stimpy. You know the stuff: the delightfully surreal, atomic age lounge music that defined the series. Don’t miss the smallish image link to Volume 2! The direct download links went dark, but if you poke around towards the bottom of the comments you can probably figure it out…

(spotted via twomuch)

January 18, 2010 permalink

MS Paint Album Art Recreations

Album art recreated quickly for the Windows 3.1 era:

The drawings in this collection were made by various users in a discussion forum on the website Using MS Paint, and other rudimentary computer drawing programs, users attempted to recreate their favorite album covers and let others on the forum guess the band and title from the artwork. […] Some gave themselves a limit of five minutes to recreate the most recognizable essentials.

I sort of like these. I’d forgotten the subtle charm of MSPaint’s spraycan, though I’d always envied MacPaint’s patterns.

(Via Coudal Partners)

December 8, 2009 permalink

Metallica Pinball

[Video no longer available]

Metallica singer James Hetfield commissioned playfield artist Wade Krause and game developer Tanio Klyce to create a custom Metallica pinball table, and they did just that. Excellent.

For the hardware they sanded down and repurposed an old Earthshaker table (it has a rumble effect gimmick built in, which sort of makes sense for a heavy metal themed game), and created custom music and sound programming using a Gumstix and Arduino Mega microcontroller to keep watch on the original Williams System 11 CPU’s signals. Double excellent.

(Via ArsTechnica)

December 7, 2009 permalink

This Creative Destruction Began in the 60s As

This “creative destruction” began in the ’60s, as did many things that we now both love and regret, and it was initially a spinoff of a project funded by US military agencies. […] Mephistopheles came to Faust in the form of a poodle. After all…in some versions of the story, he cannot enter your house unbidden — you have to invite him in, like a vampire.

From Internet Antichrist, a thoughtful piece by David Byrne on the the development of the ARPANET, psychoacoustics research at Bell Labs leading to vocoders and Kraftwerk, the rise of digital recording and transmission, and the possibility of the near-future demise of physical media and risks to personal privacy. The market forces of creative destruction.

November 27, 2009 permalink

From Endless Loop a Brief History of Chiptunes

From Endless loop: A brief history of chiptunes:

Pressure Cooker was an ambitious exception among its contemporaries. In 1980, most home computer music remained limited to single-voice melodies and lacked dynamic range. Robert “Bob” Yannes, a self-described “electronic music hobbyist,” saw the sound hardware in first-generation microcomputers as “primitive” and suggested that they had been “designed by people who knew nothing about music” (Yannes 1996). In 1981, he began to design a new audio chip for MOS Technology called the SID (Sound Interface Device). In contrast to the kludgy Atari TIA, Yannes intended the SID to be as useful in professional synthesizers as it would be in microcomputers. Later that year, Commodore decided to include MOS Technology’s new SID alongside a dedicated graphics chip in its next microcomputer, the Commodore 64. Unlike the Atari architecture, in which a single piece of hardware controlled both audio and video output, the Commodore machine afforded programmers greater flexibility in their implementation of graphics and sound […]

When I saw this headline linked by Waxy I took it to be an overview of the recent (late 90’s to now) chiptune music craze, but it’s actually a nice little overview of the nearly 30 years old history of writing music on game hardware. Even includes sections on cracktros, the demoscene, and the early advent of trackers, along with some good videos of the relevant technology.

(Photo of the SID chip via Chris Hand)

October 2, 2009 permalink




From Walkthrough, the 2nd greatest Zork-based rap song of the past couple of years (Frontalot’s It Is Pitch Dark is still pretty ultimate). And yes, I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming Get Lamp documentary.

(Via a lot of gaming blogs…)

September 12, 2009 permalink

On “Goo goo g’joob”

One widely circulated tidbit is that Lennon was inspired by James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake while writing the song. This would fit nicely with the Lewis Carroll homage, since Humpty Dumpty figures in Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece as well. (Finnegan’s fall from a ladder resonates with the fall of Humpty Dumpty and the Fall of Man.) According to Beatles lore, “goo goo goo joob” are “the last words uttered by Humpty Dumpty before his fall.” This was a popular notion among the conspiracy theorists who were convinced that Paul McCartney had died in a mysterious accident and looked for clues to his demise in Beatles lyrics.

The only problem with the Joycean theory is that “goo goo goo joob” does not actually appear in Finnegans Wake. The closest approximation in Joyce is “googoo goosth,” which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. There’s also no evidence that Lennon was actually reading Finnegans Wake at the time, so the imprint of Joyce is not nearly as clear-cut as that of Lewis Carroll.

From: Celebrating the Beatles: Goo Goo Goo Joob!

The other tidbit that folks use to tie I Am the Walrus to the Wake, not mentioned here, is that the book’s protagonist Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker / Haroun Childeric Eggeberth / HCE, is described as a walrus of a man, for both his girth and his mustache. And that’s about it. Again, nothing particularly convincing, so I’m glad to see a good debunking. More interesting in this article is the speculation about which came first: “goo goo g’joob” or Simon & Garfunkel’s “coo coo cachoo” (or is it ‘boop oop a doop’)?

May 9, 2009 permalink

Krazy Kat Cartoon with Restored Soundtrack

For possibly the first time in 80 years this Krazy Kat cartoon, Ratskin, has been reunited with its original soundtrack recording, discovered on a rare Vitaphone disc in Australia. Found via Cartoon Brew, who has a good writeup of the discovery.

(note for George Herriman fans: the animated escapades of Krazy generally have little to do with the comic strip, more closely resembling Oswald the Lucky Rabbit or Felix the Cat’s hijinx)