Tuesday, September 21, 2010

VocalWriter reducks

VocalWriter was and is a singing synthesizer. No, that's not the first time in the history of the English language that that sentence was ever uttered or typed. It's not the second, either.

As I recall, it was cool and hip when it was first released, in the mid-90s. It worked only with Mac OS Classic before it was called Mac OS Classic, and it came with a bunch of cheesy instrument sounds. And a vocoder. Which meant you could make it sing stuff. Anything. You could also adjust the pronunciation, make it do glissandi, and detune it by small amounts.

It gave you your own community choir, as it were. Except you knew when, and by how much, it would be out of tune.

You would send 80 bucks to kae labs for a working version, and as much hilarity would ensue as you had time for. Beff and I had plenty of time.

Even more pertinently, it had a Play-to-Disk feature. The program could open your Finale-created MIDI file, make a cheesy midi realization, which could be dumped into a Macintosh sound file. Which, if you were into computer music, you could use as one of your sound sources, quite easily. In Beff's case, since she was writing pieces for computer-synthesized sound with live instruments, she could easily mix the MIDI of the instrumental part she'd written into the the mix to see how things lined up.

When Mac OS X came along, kae labs said bye-bye to VocalWriter. Apparently, it was too much work to carbonize it. The program did not work in the newly-designated Classic OS.

But then we heard that they had done an OS X version! And it was optimized to work best with the Motorola G3, G4 and G5 chips. And we bought it, a second time. All the cheeseball fun was once again available to us. Alas, soon afterwards, Apple migrated to the Intel chips, and kae labs did not rewrite it again. The program does not work with Macs sold in the last three or four years — though you can still buy it online. But you must have an old computer with Motorola chips to use it.

And I do, Oscar, I do.

My Country

So VocalWriter — with judicious, or unjudicious, use of the detuning feature, can answer the pressing question What would 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' sound like with four three very nervous singers?

Paint By the Notes

It also has a "paint-the-notes" edit mode, as most sequencing software does, and if you feel like doing a Pollock spray-paint thing and giving it words, the software does not complain at all. The text thus set below is

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. When in the course of human events it becomes clear that the more we get together the happier we shall be. Fourscore and seven years ago our.

A few years ago, I was asked to evaluate a composer for tenure, and one of his pieces sounded a lot like that one. It was definitely created in VocalWriter, and phrased and shaped not much more than that one is. Why write music when you can paint it?

Alpha Spike Blues

A decade ago I was in a faculty seminar based on and around E.O. Wilson's Consilience (it was called The Consilience Seminar) and the idea was very artist colonyish: get people from different disciplines together talking about the same stuff from the vantage point of their own fields, repeat, stir to taste. It met two hours a week, there was a buttload of reading, and we all got one course relief. Wilson's book is about the coming together of all fields of study to one meta-something or other with the ultimate goal of saving the planet. It was an interesting seminar, and I learned a lot. I also had to give a two-hour presentation about my chosen field. Which, at the time, was music.

The week before my presentation was scheduled, Wilson himself visited the seminar, and we asked him plenty of questions about the book and about his outlook. He's really good at sciences, and pretty rudimentary at anything to do with the arts. He had mentioned that when listening to a Beethoven symphony, certain chords would cause alpha spikes. But why? Much of the book looked for epigenetic rules of human behaviour — that which we do because we are hard-wired to do it, in opposition to that which we do because we are culturally conditioned to do so. So, crinkling your nose to a dissonant chord? Go ahead, argue whether the concept of dissonance is epigenetic or culturally programmed. While you're doing that, I'm going out for a beer. The notion that a seventh must resolve to a sixth? So culturally programmed.

And there was apparently an epigenetic rule for art. As follows: 20% redundancy. Old art, new art, fresh art, is considered to have beauty in most cultures if it has around that much redundancy.

How does that work for music? How do you make a list of things and then determine whether they are redundant, and by how much? Is mod music bad when it's almost 100 percent nonredundant? Is minimalism bad when it's 95 percent redundant?

Can I sell my extra redundancy on ebay? Or have I said that already?

My response was a blues tune that I wrote to begin my Consilience presentation. Naturally, I asked VocalWriter to sing it and play it. With this text: Baby you spiked my alpha waves/When you played that chord!/Twenty percent redundancy/Is what I gravitate toward! Which may have been the first faux blues tune in history to set the words redundancy and gravitate.

O Rhode Island

I have gotten a lot of private comments about O Rhode Island since this post. When I say a lot, I mean hardly any. By which I mean, none. Or maybe one, I forget.

It so turns out that O Rhode Island got one of the first VocalWriter treatments once we got the software. It is vastly funnier when a computer does the singing; then it just seems kind of sad. Okay, really sad.

After the song was learned by the masses at Yaddo, various writers and I added more verses. One of these days there may be a post here with the other nine verses. If I can find them.

For now I leave you with — words by Tom Chandler.

That's my story and to it is stickin' being done by me.