Category: Music

Dave Brubeck

By Sean Carroll | December 5, 2012 11:40 am

Dave Brubeck, an innovative and influential jazz pianist over many years, has died at the age of 91. Based in California, he was a leader of so-called West Coast Jazz, bringing a spirit of experimentation to a part of the jazz world that had been resolutely mainstream.

Brubeck loved to experiment with unusual time signatures, a tendency that culminated in his masterpiece album, Time Out. The tune played above, Blue Rondo √† la Turk, is predominantly in 9/8 time, with the beats broken mostly into a 2+2+2+3 pattern. But things aren’t quite so simple, as Wikipedia explains.

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Von Freeman

By Sean Carroll | August 13, 2012 6:45 pm

Von Freeman, legendary jazz saxophonist, passed away Sunday. He was 88 years old.

Here he is at the 2002 Berlin jazzfest, when Von was a spry 78: Mike Allemana on guitar, Michael Raynor on drums, and Jack Zara on bass. Playing one of Von’s tunes, “Blues for Sunnyland.”

From 2002 to 2007, listening to Von play live was an integral part of my life in Chicago. He had two regular gigs: once a month at Andy’s downtown, where tourists would squeeze in shoulder-to-shoulder to experience something only Chicago had to offer, and every Tuesday night at the New Apartment Lounge on 75th Street, in one of the sketchier neighborhoods on the South Side. Andy’s was great, but the Apartment was special. A tiny little bar, no cover charge, where you could sit within three feet of the band as they explored the outer regions of improvisational possibility. Starting at 10:30, going into the early morning hours — I went often, but never managed to stay for the whole thing. An eclectic crowd of locals, jazz freaks, and University of Chicago students mixed with the musicians who would make the weekly pilgrimage, because after finishing his set Von would turn the stage over to a jam session that nurtured generations of jazz players.

This video was taken in 2010 by someone who was apparently sitting in my old seat at the Apartment. Matt Ferguson is now on bass.

Von was absolutely unique, as a saxophonist and as a person. As a musician he managed to intermingle an astonishing variety of styles, from classic ballads to bebob all the way to free jazz, with more than a few things you would never hear anywhere else. Some thought that his playing was an acquired taste, full of skronks and trills and lighting-fast tempo changes. But once you “got it,” you could hear something in Von that you just couldn’t hear anywhere else. This isn’t just formerly-local pride talking; when John Coltrane left Miles Davis’s band in the 1950’s, Miles tried to get Von to replace him. But Von never left Chicago for more than a few days at a time.

As a person, Von was charming, roguish, stubborn, warm, irascible, and utterly compelling. Sometimes on stage he would get in the mood for talking instead of playing, and honestly it was hard to tell which you preferred. The wisecracks, the wisdom, the Billie Holiday stories, all mixed with the smoke and the cheap beer to create an unforgettable atmosphere.

There wasn’t anybody else like him, and there never will be. We’ll miss you, Von.


Music Was Better in the Sixties, Man

By Sean Carroll | July 28, 2012 10:45 am

Actually, popular music is arguably “better” today. But in the Sixties it was more creative — or at least more experimental. So says science. (Via Kevin Drum.)

The science under consideration was carried out by a group of Spanish scientists led by Joan Serrà, and appeared in Scientific Reports, an open-access journal published by Nature. They looked at something called the Million Song Dataset, which is pretty amazing in its own right. The MSD collects data from over a million songs recorded since 1955, including tempo and volume and some information about the pitches of the actual notes (seems unclear to me exactly how detailed this data is).

And the answer is … popular music is in many ways unchanged over the years. The basic frequencies of different notes and so forth haven’t changed that much. But in certain crucial ways they have: in particular, they’ve become more homogeneous. This chart shows “timbral variety” over the years — a way of measuring how diverse the different kinds of sounds appearing in songs are. Nobody should really be surprised that the late 1960’s was the peak of different kinds of instrumentation being used in pop music. On the other hand, one could I suppose argue that this is because back then we didn’t know how to do it right, and there was a lot of experimental crap, whereas we’ve now figured it out. I suppose.

On the other hand, songs have gotten louder! So you get more volume for your money.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Music, Science, Top Posts

Robot Helicopter Electrik Band

By Sean Carroll | February 29, 2012 12:23 pm

Sometimes a label conveys it all: “Robot Quadrotors Perform James Bond Theme.” This video was shown today at the TED conference by Vijay Kumar of Penn. (H/t Al Seckel.)

Note that the little helicopters are pre-programmed; they’re not being remotely controlled by any human beings.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Music, Technology

Friday Piano Solo

By Sean Carroll | February 24, 2012 10:34 am

Keith Emerson has been doing some interesting work on wave mechanics, Fourier transforms, and temporal structure. Here are some of his findings.

Not exactly what you see at the Grammy’s these days. (Not that it was back in 1974, either.)


Mind = Blown

By Sean Carroll | January 30, 2012 8:37 am

Apologies that real work (to the extent that what I do can be called “work”) has gotten in the way of substantive blogging. But I cannot resist sharing the amazing things I learned this weekend — amazing to me, anyway, although it’s possible I’m the only one here who wasn’t clued in.

Thing the first is that Morgan Freeman, many years before he went through the wormhole, was a regular on The Electric Company, along with performers like Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby. (Via Quantum Diaries, of all places.) This was public television’s show from the 70’s that was meant for kids who had moved on from Sesame Street — I was more of a Zoom kid myself, but I must have seen Electric Company episodes with Freeman playing hip dude Easy Reader.

Thing the second is that Easy Reader’s theme song, sung in the clip above, is a dead ringer for Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” Flip back and forth between playing them if you don’t believe me. So much so, I am told, that DJ’s in clubs will sometimes mix the two tunes together. Not at the clubs I go to, I guess.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Music

Gil Scott-Heron

By Sean Carroll | May 28, 2011 8:45 am

Gil Scott-Heron has died at 62. I could mention how his spoken-word recordings were a noted precursor of hip-hop, but then the Onion would make fun of me.


Happy Birthday Bob Dylan

By Sean Carroll | May 24, 2011 3:10 pm

Seventy years old. Wow.

I recognize the first questioner at this press conference. I’m pretty sure he’s been at some of my own talks.


Friday Bass Solo

By Sean Carroll | January 21, 2011 5:28 am

I’m at a pretty intense workshop this week, spending my waking hours talking about causal diamonds, Boltzmann Brains, and the multiverse. My poor regular brain isn’t up to the task of blogging.

But John Entwistle has some thoughts he would like to share with you.


No One Is Spared!

By Sean Carroll | June 15, 2010 11:35 am

Caltech had its commencement ceremony last Friday, and I donned a cap and gown to march up on stage with the other faculty members. It’s always a great day, as years of work comes to fruition for several hundred students, ready to move on to the next stage of their careers.

Naturally, there was singing. The Glee Club sent spirits soaring with the Caltech alma mater, “Hail CIT.”

In southern California with grace and splendor bound,
Where the lofty mountain peaks look out to lands beyond,
Proudly stands our alma mater, glorious to see.
We raise our voices proudly, hailing, hailing thee.
Echos ringing while we’re singing, over land and sea.
The hall of fame resound thy name, noble CIT.

The one that got my attention, however, was the other song — Gaudeamus Igitur, apparently a “traditional college song.” How have I spent so many years in academia without coming across this one? It was sung in Latin, but a helpful translation into English was provided.

Therefore let us rejoice
While we are young
After pleasant youth,
After troublesome old age,
The earth will have us.

Where are they who before us
Were in the world?
You can cross the heavens,
You can go to hell,
If you wish to see them.

Our life is brief,
Shortly it will end.
Death comes quickly,
It snatches us cruelly,
No one is spared.

Long live the academy!
Long live the professors!
Long live each student!
Long live all students!
May they always flourish!

Cheerful, no? We’re all going to die, but at least the university will live on. Comforting.

And now Wikipedia informs me that a few verses were apparently left out of our version. To wit:

Long live all girls
Easy and beautiful!
Long live mature women also,
Tender and lovable
Good [and] productive,

Long live the state as well
And he who rules it!
Long live our city
[And] the charity of benefactors
Which protects us here!

Let sadness perish!
Let haters perish!
Let the devil perish!
Let whoever is anti-student
As well as the mockers!

So they left out the bits that were veering uncomfortably close to sexism, fascism, and serial killer-ism. I’m thinking they didn’t want the ceremony to drag on for too long.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Music, Words

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