I’m about to go to Bali, home to Gamelan, one of the most interesting musical traditions in the world. Equal parts rhythmic and melodic, amazing harmony and counterpoint, and an interesting participatory music culture playing one-of-a-kind musical instrument ensembles. I’m fortunate enough to have a friend who has studied gamelan in Bali. Here's what Chris wrote me as on what I may hear when I visit. (He also gave me a copy of A House in Bali, a 1947 book about a Canadian musician who went to Bali to study.)

Most all links to video or music files, give it a listen!

Style: Gamelan “Gong Kebyar”

This is the style that is most associated with Balinese gamelan today. It’s a style that came into its own in the early 1900s-1930s, evolving away from the slower Javanese-style court gamelan that preceded it. A hallmark characteristic of this virtuosic style is the “kotekan”, or interlocking wherein different players each play one half of the melody at high speed and it’s which are zippered together at high speed (example here). It is also quite often accompanied by dance.

Jagra Parwata: This is a virtuosic gong kebyar piece, one of my favorites. I believe it won the All-Bali competition about ten years ago. It’s also the first piece I ever learned to play on Gamelan – a true “trial by fire”. Note the loose interpretation of time; it changes tempos both languidly and abruptly. This is a classic aspect of gong kebyar.

Taruna Jaya: This is the most famous of the gong kebyar dance pieces, created around 1950. For a Balinese female dancer, this is the single most important piece and is used as a required dance to judge the All-Bali competition. Taruna Jaya stands for “victorious youth”, and is intended to convey the wide range of emotions of an impetuous youthful princess. It is danced by a young girl who (as it was described to me by my Balinese teachers) is pretending to be a young man pretending to be a young girl. There’s a good description here. Carefully controlled, intense eye and finger movement are the hallmarks of this piece, and much of Balinese dance. The dance requires so much energy that most Taruna Jaya dancers peak out at around 15 years of age.

Style: Gamelan “Gender Wayang”

This is a ceremonial form of gamelan, used for religious ceremonies (weddings, tooth filings, etc) and also puppet shows. As opposed to gong kebyar, this style is played with either two or four players who sit facing each other, each side playing one half of the melody in a fashion similar to the gong kebyar kotekans.

Here’s a video from someone playing at a local temple festival. Here’s another video of someone practicing his half of the ankat ankatan melody at about half speed; it gives you a good idea of how both hands work together and how half of the melody sounds. This song is the first one I learned on the gender wayang, because it’s pretty simple and repetitive. It translates to “walking music” and is used as filler during the parts of the puppet shows when the characters are supposed to be “walking around on a long journey”.

Gending Rebong: This is a song used during puppet shows when two characters are expressing their love for each other.

Style: Balaganjur

This is a marching form of gamelan. You will see this in parades and cremation ceremonies. It has all the elements of gong kebyar but is much simpler and more repetitive and is easy enough that every villager learns a couple belaganjur patterns so they can take part in ceremonies for members of their village. In that sense it’s the form of gamelan that most non-musician villagers take part in at least once or twice a year.

The Belaganjur of group Jaya Sakti: I don’t think this even has a formal name, but it’s the most awesome belaganjur I’ve ever heard. I love how it starts out incredibly simple and, simply through tempo change along, seems to transform from something calm and relaxing into something violent and exciting, and then back again. If this doesn’t make you want to march, nothing will.

  2014-02-20 17:52 Z

I have no idea how I find new music anymore, but here’s two mix tapes I’ve been listening to a lot lately thanks to mentions on Metafilter.

Nicolas Jaar uses techno mixing techniques to work slow tempo music into lyrical, meditative pieces. His two hour set on BBC Essential Mix is absolutely amazing, an eclectic and fresh mix of various music that’s incredibly thoughtful. Jaar also runs the Clown & Sunset label. (MeFi thread).

DJ Shadow is justly famous for his crate digging and hip-hop derived mixing, although honestly other than Endtroducing I haven’t like much in his CD releases. But the All Basses Covered set is absolutely fantastic. He was infamously kicked off the decks after 20 minutes at a stupid South Beach club for being “too future”. Happily he cleaned up the set and put it online. It has a lot of depth and humor; the chopped & screwed Simpsons theme is particularly clever. (MeFi thread).

  2013-03-22 22:21 Z

Today I learned that one of the key themes in the electronica soundtrack for the film Liquid Sky is an arrangement of a 1723 piece by baroque composer Marin Marais. Compare for yourself: Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris, Noon and Afternoon from Liquid Sky.

Liquid Sky has always been one of my favorite films. The plot’s ridiculous. But the music, the art direction, the costumes, the acting, it’s all beautiful and unique. A particularly heady film for 1982. Sadly my love for the film is not shared by all.

I came to all this while listening to Nicolas Jaar’s essential mix, excellent listening itself. He mixes the baroque piece on top of some Aphex Twin around 19 minutes in.

  2012-05-25 18:28 Z
I just organized my entire music collection into well tagged MP3 and M4A files and couldn't be happier; both iTunes and Sonos work better with clean metadata. The majority of my music comes from CDs which I'd ripped over the years. Between the crappy 128kbps MP3 of the earliest rips and the inconsistent metadata I decided to start over with a clean rip from a ripping service. I've also got some stuff bought or downloaded from various sources (mostly Amazon) with varying quality that I had to fit in. 1200 albums in all, 300GB.

A clean rip of the CDs was a great place to begin. I took all my discs to ReadyToPlay, a service down in Palo Alto. They aren't the cheapest (I paid $1.40/disc) but they came well recommended and their website does a good job explaining how they take extra care with metadata. I was really happy with the result of their work and enthusiastically recommend them.

ReadyToPlay's setup is a few robots loading discs into CD-ROM drives with dbPowerAmp doing the ripping and conversion. They ripped to Apple Lossless (m4a); now that Apple has opened the format it seems the best choice. ReadyToPlay licenses high quality metadata from All Music Guide and other sources so album and artist names are much more accurate than I've seen from free sources. They also do some hand editing and data entry as well as careful handling of the CDs and cases. Money well spent.

ReadyToPlay got me started with a metadata schema. Just 18 genres without silly micro classification. Artist vs. Album Artist vs. Composer is a headache, particularly with Classical music, but iTunes mostly does the right thing even if Sonos is a bit confusing. One clever thing ReadyToPlay did was stuff detailed genre info into the Grouping tag, so while Autechre shows up as "Electronic" in the basic Genre I can also find it in iTunes via a search for "Techno" or "IDM" or "Experimental".

I didn't really need to edit any of the ReadyToPlay metadata, it was correct from the start. The other music was more of a mess. I'm surprised at how poorly labelled Bleep and Amazon's early MP3 sales were. It took a few hours to collapse down the genres, fix up mislabeled album titles, and try to figure out what some of these unlabeled BBC Essential Mix tracks really were. But all that work is done and now I've got a great, easy to use music collection.

Anyone want to buy several boxes of used CDs?

  2012-02-04 22:44 Z
Portishead's new album Third is due to be released on April 29. It's highly anticipated; their 1994 and 1997 albums were amazing and then the band imploded, unable to produce. Fans have been waiting nervously. But if your ethics are flexible you haven't had to wait quite so long; a near-final edit of the album was leaked to the Internet on March 6. First to BitTorrent, then to Usenet, then to YouTube. And the album is great. I've preordered my copy of the real thing.

If you were politely waiting for the actual release, yesterday a full copy of the album showed up for streaming on last.fm. It looks legitimate, branded "last.fm exclusive." Except the streams sound identical to the March 6 release. Including the abrupt end of the end of the first track, Silence, a rough edit. And including the IM popup sound 2:14 into track 5, Plastic, sounding like an error on the initial pirate's computer. Why is last.fm distributing these glitched tracks?

Update: turns out I was all wrong about last.fm's streams. The abrupt cut on track 1 and the odd sound on track 5 are both in the final retail CD. In fact, the CD sounds exactly like the leak on March 6 and the last.fm streams.

Portishead has officially released a video from Third
  2008-04-22 15:18 Z
I love services that passively record things I do. So I was excited to find Audioscrobbler from last.fm. It silently watches my Winamp and Squeezebox traffic and tells a server what I'm listening to. Simple, well executed.

What last.fm is missing is doing anything useful with that data. The site has some complex dashboard social network thing that is impenetrable to me. And it has a music recommendation function which is pretty good, but too junked up by crappy quality free music to be enjoyable.

So hooray for third party graphs! lastgraph is a simple web site that plots your music listening history from last.fm. The tool is a bit awkward, but the resulting graphs are beautiful and readable.

I hope last.fm has already made the appropriate overture to provide these graphs themselves. Simplify the creation tool a bit, publish a PNG, and fix poor Édith's name and you've got a fine product feature.

  2008-01-07 18:39 Z
I've been listening to Woody Guthrie's 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. It's mostly pretty grim folk blues, the misery of people fleeing the economic disaster of the Oaklahoma Dust Bowl. So I was a bit surprised to find this funny little sexual entendre hidden in his Dust Pneumonia Blues.
If it wasn't for choppin my hoe would turn to rust
If it wasn't for choppin my hoe would turn to rust
I can't find a woman in this black old Texas dust
"Choppin" must be what the boys called it back in the 30s.
  2007-12-11 19:09 Z
One of the best features of the new Amazon MP3 store is the new album music preview. Single click to preview all the tracks, all Ajax loading in the page. 30 second snippets from each track automatically play, cleverly from the middle of the track, not the start. Simple and effective.

Thanks to last.fm I've learned I need some Air in my life, but their albums vary quite a bit. The previews are great; I'm finding I like the older stuff like Moon Safari and Primiers Symptômes best.

  2007-11-10 17:42 Z
They're serious about the MP3 store. I just found they're offering a 20% referral fee for all sales via links from Amazon Associates. That's about $2 an album. Some music blog somewhere is about to get very wealthy. And Apple must feel a little nervous. Big play.
  2007-10-17 16:41 Z
The new Amazon MP3 store is awesome. $0.89 or $0.99 a song, $9 or so an album, and simple MP3 files with no DRM or iTunes nonsense. The MP3s come with great ID3 tags and excellent quality 256kbps encoding (sometimes VBR). The downloader app is even decent; I think it's there to make life simple for people who aren't download experts.

This store is it, folks. We've been whining for years that buying music online sucked and we got better results stealing it. Well, that's not true anymore. If Amazon sells a piece of music there's no advantage to stealing it other than thieving something for free.

Proper respects to Warp Records whose online store Bleep has been selling unencumbered MP3s for almost four years now. Bleep is awesome but it has a limited catalog. Amazon will be the big time.

Update: one wrinkle, the Amazon MP3 version of M.I.A.'s album Arular is a bowdlerized copy. The word fuck is radio-edited out in "URAQT" and "Dash the Curry Skit". Why am I being treated like a child? Presumably this is the label's fault, not Amazon's.

Update 2: thanks to rjrjr I see Amazon has now updated the store, offering both kiddie and normal versions.

Update 3: thanks to Amazon support for letting me "exchange" the album. Of course you can't really return a download, but they made an exception for me.
  2007-10-02 21:52 Z