Time to get this blog rolling again

2010 got off to a good start, then I was hit by some unexpected family losses followed by some annoying family weirdness. Between that and a larger than usual assortment of extra-curricular activities, my blog got derailed. It’s time to fix that.

For those who haven’t kept up with my twitter feed or photo stream, here’s the short version of what you missed the last few months: 1) The DPRG is working on starting a Dallas Hackerspace. We’ve decided to call it a Makerspace because Dallas people seem to be easily spooked by the word “hacker”. 2) I’m still playing with vintage cameras and have more in the queue to try out. 3) Still playing with my DSLR too. Got some recent photos into an exhibit Germany. My photos of the Traveling Man Sculpture made into the May/June issue of Robot magazine 4) Still working on the Noise Boundary robotic music project. We did a demo for a class at UNT and I got the opportunity to chat with Pat Metheny about the topic while he was in Dallas 5) DPRG did some major stuff at All-Con this year and also at Tech-Fest and the FIRST LEGO League regional championship. 6) Lots of other fun stuff, events, people, and places. More to come.

Noise Boundary Demo at UNT

Ed and I did a demo of our Noise Boundary music ensemble at UNT Thursday morning for a kinetic arts class taught by David Van Ness and David Hanson. For those who aren’t familiar with the project, we’re developing a collection of autonomous robot instruments that collaborate among themselves to improvise music. At the current stage, the instruments are being controlled via MIDI from a single laptop running GNU/Linux and autonomous music generation algorithms we’ve written in the ChucK programming language.

The two instruments used in Thursday’s demo include our autonomous 2.5 octave Glockenspiel and the sound generation chamber of a circa 1890 manual pump reed organ that has been converted to operate from an industrial vacuum motor. Both instruments are controlled by onboard Arduino boards (the Glockenspiel uses an ArduinoMega). Development of this project has slowed down the last couple of months since the DPRG lost it’s space and the weather has made working in my garage difficult. Once we get the new hackerspace online, this is one of the projects we’ll be working on regularly there. We have a China cymbal and Snare drum that will become part of a soon to be built percussion pod. And crazier stuff like a pentatonic Rijke resonator organ has been discussed.

For more, see my Noise Boundary photo galleryThe video above is the equipment test I did in my garage the night before the demo. David Hanson captured a few seconds of the event on iphone video.

Merry Christmas

Another Christmas has come and gone. On Christmas Eve Susan cooked a pot roast in the traditional style I grew up with. The meat came from a small order we placed with Dominion Farms, a local organic farming operation. All their animals are fed natural diets, no hormones or antibiotics. The meat was really tasty, so we’ll probably get more from them in the future. My brother Randy joined us for dinner and we played several games of Scrabble afterwards while eating Apple Pie.

Susan and I spent Christmas morning at home opening a few presents for each other and then we drove up to McKinney to spend the rest of the day with family and friends. There was more opening of presents, large quantities of food, and lots of catching up on family news. We played a couple of games include Mexican Train dominoes and something new called Catch Phrase that our niece and nephew talked us into.

I spent some time helping my nephew rip audio tracks from a CD to use as ringtones on a his new phone. I’d forgotten how difficult it can be on Windows boxes to do simple things like converting from one audio file format to another. His phone needed MMA or MP3 audio but Windows would only rip CDs in WMA format. I Googled for downloadable sound utilities but could only find crappy shareware and freeware stuff that mostly didn’t work. Then it occurred to me to see if any free software audio tools had been ported to Windows. I was pleasantly surprised to find Audacity for Windows. It’s really amazing how much better most free software apps are compared to your average Windows programs these days! Audacity really saved the day for us. We were able to edit the track down to size, convert it to MP3 and get it onto his phone’s SD card. And all in time to grab a piece of home made fudge before it vanished.

Jaap van Zweden at the DSO

On Saturday, Susan and I attended our first Dallas Symphony performance since Jaap van Zweden took over as Music Director. His conducting style is very different from Andrew Litton. Litton always seemed to be conducting a few notes ahead of the orchestra – he waved the baton and a second later you’d hear the orchestra hit the note. Jaap van Zweden, on the other hand, gives the appearance of conducting in real time. The orchestra hits notes at exactly the same time that his baton makes the move. I’m sure there’s a technical name for that difference but I have no ideas what it is.

Jaap van Zweden did seem to be squeezing a little something extra out of the musicians during their performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. The conductor wore a black Dr. Evil outfit and tends to be very animated as he conducts. More than anything, he seemed to be using his baton as a magic wand and looked like an evil wizard madly casting spells.

Pianist Emanuel Ax performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25. We last saw Ax perform John Adams’ Century Rolls. While I prefer Adams to Mozart, it was still an enjoyable performance.

Free Software and Free Music

It seems hardly a day goes by lately without reading about some new attack on the performance or sharing of music by the music industry itself. The RIAA is doing a pretty good job of destroying the legacy music industry all by itself. Their latest attempts to shut down Internet radio stations through punative licensing fees got me wondering about the state of free music. I know it’s out there and a little searching even turned up some directories and lists of public domain and freely licensed music. But surprisingly I didn’t immediately spot any Internet radio stations or even regular podcasts where I could listen to new free music. Are there any? I also didn’t see much in the way blogs or news sites devoted to the topic.

Maybe this is a case where the free software community could educate our musician friends about the benefits of using licenses that protect their listener’s freedom to share and perform the music. I know quite a few musicians in local bands but, as far as I know, most of them rely on the traditional music industry and their legacy music distribution techniques.

Maybe some musicians or listeners in the free music community can point me to some good starting places to learn more about state of things and find the latest news?

Kronos Quartet Brings Sun Rings to Dallas

Kronos Quartet played at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas last week. I managed to get some pretty good seats for the performance and took Susan along. We’d previously seen Kronos play live in Austin with the Philip Glass ensemble a few years ago. This time they were accompanied by the Women’s Chorus of Dallas and the Turtle Creek Chorale. They performed a 2002 piece called Sun Rings which was composed for them by Terry Riley. The work included a visual component designed by Willie Williams. The piece was commissioned by an unusual patron – NASA.

I had no idea NASA had an art program. Apparently their goal is to create works of art that will inspire future genreations of engineers and scientists. In this case, Terry Riley composed the music around sounds recorded by the plasma wave sensors on Voyager, Cassini, and other NASA space probes. Scientist Don Gurnett who has been working with plasma wave sensors for over 40 years, selected his favorite sounds and provided them to Riley.

The work combined the live music of the string quartet and vocals with a synthetic soundtrack composed by Riley from the the plasma wave sounds. On top of this, each performer had a control stalk with a proximity sensor at the tip attached to their music stand. By waving their hand over it, they could trigger additional plasma wave samples randomly from preselected batches that matched the movement of the piece. This causes each performance to have a unique sound while still retaining a conventional musical structure.

During the performance, there are also background visuals that alternate between color washes and a series of graphics based on the Voyager probe’s golden record operating instructions which explain to aliens how to decode and play the record carried on the probe. The instructions start with a diagram illustrating the states of a hydrogen atom, and proceed from there to the construction of a record player, reproducing the sound, decoding the embedded video waveforms, and reconstructing the video images. (no doubt an achievement that would land some lucky alien a story in their equivalent of Make magazine). The performers are also surrounded by a large number of light tipped rods which vary in color and intensity during the performance, at times giving the impression that the performers are floating in the void of space and at other times are reminiscent of candles.

We both enjoyed the music and found the performance as a whole more than interesting enough to fill the hour and half length. As an added bonus, the member of Kronos hung around for a little Q and A event after the show. Surprisingly only about a dozen members of the audience stayed to ask questions and listen to stories.