Sunday, December 01, 2013

Sound of the Year: 2013 – The Tap-Tap Tapping of Internet Surveillance

Image Courtesy Alberto Racatumba
In May 2013, an infrastructure analyst by the name of Edward Snowden, working for US defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, arranged to meet with documentary filmmaker and journalist, Laura Poitras and Guardian commentator Glenn Greenwald.

The meeting took place in Snowden's Hong Kong hotel room after he had fled the United States with a trove of classified information which revealed a 'systematic surveillance of innocent citizens', and which he was now about to reveal to the international press for public scrutiny and judgement.

What ever the final legal opinion of his actions, or one's own opinion of Snowden (traitor, idiot, whistleblower), he expressed his intentions as well meaning:

“It’s important to send a message to government that people will not be intimidated.”(The Washington Post)

On June 7th, after an initial examination and two days after the initial published report of Snowden’s leaks, major outlets reported that “the NSA is accessing the systems of US internet giants including Google and Facebook, and collecting data under a previously undisclosed surveillance programme called Prism. The programme allows officials to collect material including emails, live chats and search histories." (BBC)

Additional NSA documents leaked by Snowden indicated that the NSA had also extended its  practice of casting a wide digital net on both the leaders and citizens of several allied nations.

The sweep inlcuded 70 million digital communications in France, in just one 30-day period alone, between Dec. 2012 and Jan. 2013; and it also revealed that the agency had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone for a decade. Naturally, she and other leaders across the globe expressed outrage.

Certainly, both wire and web tapping have long proved a valid and acceptable means to protect the populace from criminal endeavor. However, the legal interception of electronic communications has typically required a warrant and is usually limited to those communications that meet a stringent standard of relevance to a specific case.

In the United States, in order to obtain a warrant, the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] court typically requests the production of records "pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets."

Snowden has since been granted asylum in Russia, although his residence in that country is limited to a year. Meanwhile back in the United States, mention of the erstwhile Booz Allen cyber spy continues to ignite heated discussion, as he is defended as a whistleblower by his supporters, and called a traitor by others.

How this story finishes is anyone's guess at this point.

Either way, as a result of Mr. Snowden’s explosive revelations and the ensuing international clamor they caused, the the 2013 Critical Noise Sound of the Year is awarded to the Tap-Tap Tapping of Internet Surveillance.

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The Critical Noise Sound of the Year goes to that sound source, event, entity, happening or concept which so effectively produces wide response and reaction, whether intentional or not, such that it stirs collective emotion, inspires discussion, incites action, or otherwise lends itself to cultural analysis and resonates across the globe.

Sound of the Year winners include Pussy Riot (2012), The Cry for Freedom (2011), The Vuvuzela (2010) and Auto-Tune (2009)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

From Media to Management

Image Courtesy liladepo
The hardest lesson I had to learn in my professional development from producer to Executive Producer is that:

Neither sales nor doing is leadership; Communication informed by empathy and purpose is leadership.

But maybe you don't even want to be a leader; delegation can feel like an awkward at first, while others are simply uncomfortable giving up control.

Or maybe all you ever wanted was to be a professional artist, a working composer or film editor, but along with acquiring professional success, you also acquired a staff. Suddenly, you've got mouths to feed and you spend less time making cool stuff, and more time running a company.

Nevertheless, for whatever reason, you may not want to accept the responsibility that comes with your job title.

One Executive Producer confessed to me that she didn't want to do sales. "But that's your job," I said. I wasn't being arrogant or pompous; I was simply stating a fact and the sooner she accepted that, the sooner she would reap the benefit gained by assimilating to her actual role, not the role she had in her head.

The fact is, the moment your job changes from artist to strategist, and you go from coordinating tasks to managing projects, then you're a leader. Whether you want to be a leader is irrelevant; if you have people under your charge, then the only thing that matters at this point is whether you're going to be an effective leader or an incompetent leader.

If you're any good at your job, then one day it will stop being just about Crayola crayons, or Adobe Creative Suite, or Autodesk, or ProTools, Davinci Resolve or whatever you count among your creative tools. You'll still have tools in your belt, but you'll also have people in the truck, so to speak. You'll gain a few more responsibilities, and with them will come the obligation to actually learn new management skills. In no particular order:

  • Leadership is now your job.
  • Communication is now your job. 
  • Community Building is now your job
  • Empathy is now your job.
  • Strategy is now your job.
  • Purpose is now your job.

Do what you other people before you have done to do to figure it out: read books, find a mentor, take a class if you have to, but don't permit yourself to turn into an obstinate jerk just because when you came up through the ranks, you worked for an obstinate jerk, and now you think, well, that's just the way you do it in our industry.

Here's a tip: an overwhelming number of psychological investigations and research into human learning suggests that the use of positive reinforcement in changing behavior is almost always more effective than using punishment. And you don't have to take my word for it, go ahead and Google it.

–And then, Good Luck!

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Music Production Techniques That Apply to Real Life

  • Balance your levels.
  • You need a hook.
  • Timing is Everything.
  • Roll off all unnecessary frequencies.
  • Don't get stuck in a loop.
  • Remove noise between important moments.
  • If you crank up the volume there's no place to go.
  • If input rises above threshold, reduce level.
  • Regularly Boost, Sweep and Cut.
  • Cut the offending frequency and tighten up your Q. 
  • Mix with Multiple Speakers
  • Three properties essential to both sound waves and making waves: Amplitude, Frequency and Phase 

Friday, March 01, 2013

Pussy Riot: Hooliganism or Heroism

Has any popular artist or band in the new millennium mattered any more than Pussy Riot?

From the beginning, the members of Pussy Riot risked subverting their political message with same flashmob tactics and theatricalized sexuality that they employed to gain attention in the first place.

That group members freely combine Realpolitik and Porn within and beyond the conceptual limits of the Pussy Riot project  also suggests the band is not simply an act, but a lifestyle bent on disrupting culture by lobbing incendiary cognitive dissonance devices directly into the public consciousness.

For one, their balaclavas resemble as much bondage hoods as ski masks; for another, one group member has been reported as being an orgy participant; and yet another alleged member of the collective, participating in a non-Pussy performance piece, if we can call it that, stuffed a frozen chicken into her vagina.

The imaginary mental picture I hold of that performance resembles Caesar van Everdingen's 'Woman Playing a Cittern' made over by Andy Warhol and presented by the Symbionese Liberation Army Puppet Theater Company: at turns funny, repulsive, beautiful, titillating, shocking and despicable.

Of course, some decent folk will resist the notion that a woman with a frozen chicken in her vagina is capable of serious intellectual energy, even if at the same time they ably accept a government whose members are also full of something, and yet also still capable of determining serious matters. After all, somebody is buying dildos in Washington, D.C. and Westminster.

One might reasonably argue that porn is never an appropriate tool for the feminists' arsenal, however, the chicken action is not without precedent. For many, 'How to Snatch a Chicken' is fairly reminisce of a another classic and similarly foodcentric act of defiance: 'The Return of the Chocolate-smeared Woman', by American performance artist, Karen Finely.

In this 1994 piece, that artist smeared her naked body with chocolate with the intention that the act be considered a rebuttal against the U.S. Government's legal threat to impose restrictions on grants for 'indecent art', and specifically her own work (National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley).  And as with Pussy Riot's defense against the Russian government, Ms. Finely also lost her case.

She was, however, was awarded a Ms. magazine Woman of the Year award; and today, Finely  teaches at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

So, it may be that long after their jail sentences fade from the press and public memory, that academic appointments and mainstream professional acceptance await the members of Pussy Riot. And if and when that time comes, it may be your children that they arm with their ideas and ideals, the ideas and ideals necessary to question authority where and when others dare not.

But don't be alarmed, it is, actually, a pro-democracy message that both Finley and Pussy Riot deliver.

Suffice to say that that there are many who though otherwise sympathetic to Pussy Riot's message,  they simply find the group's tactics too offensive or annoying to give their political motivations any thought or credence.

Even among Pussy Riot's activist fans, many misinterpret the group's message. Some project their own politics into the Pussy Riot agenda; others have simply leveraged the Pussy Riot situation and look for their own personal cause. But no wonder why! Pussy Riot's performance at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and the group member's subsequent persecution presents a successful paradigm to arts activists.

As Nadezhda Tolokonnikova noted at the end of her trial:

"Every day, more people understand that if the system is attacking three young women who performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for thirty seconds with such vehemence, it only means that this system fears the truth, sincerity, and straightforwardness we represent."

She also explained that the lyric, 'Holy shit', was not meant as a blasphemous attack on the church or the religion, but merely represented 'our evaluation of the situation in the country'.

In the band's defense, Amnesty International's Michelle Ringuette framed Pussy Riot's performance as 'a peaceful protest song in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral that lasted less than a minute' .  Even one band member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, described the Cathedral take down as a display of 'innocent creativity'.

Certainly, these statements were presented only at the service of their defense, however, because they greatly undervalue the impact of the group's punk prayer. If 'Mother of God, Drive Putin Out' were merely a peaceful song, the women would have failed in their mission. But they did not fail. By the standards by which dissident art is measured, they succeeded and succeeded wildly.

Not to mention that even when presented as pure entertainment, theater is never innocent. And certainly, no one hijacks a church alter and says or sings "Holy shit, shit, Lord's shit!" who isn’t trying to shock and provoke a strong reaction.

Either way, that Pussy Riot's musical actions in the Cathedral  might be a justified measure against a tyrannical state will certainly be a subject of never ending debate, which means that Pussy Riot's punk prayer will to continue to resonate in the public consciousness for many years to come.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Audio Mark as a Storytelling Platform

Image by: Craig Cloutier
Music, as we know, comes in many forms. And one person's music is another person's noise.

Readers of this blog know I'm fascinated by microstructures; that is, those forms of noise and aural expression that may not represent complete 'works' as we think of the concept, but which nonetheless capably convey meaning.


For instance, where one single pitch might convey neither music nor meaning, two pitches in a sequence –if they are the right pitches– might serve to conclude a story, a song, or even an event, such as a religious service. The two pitches in question are, of course, IV and I, which we know as a 'descending cadence', and which together package enough signification in one descending step that whenever they are deployed, everyone within earshot receives the exact same message: This is where the story ends.


As it happens, it is the identification and contextualization of such nano sized musical expressions that provide the underlying conceptual framework whenever we are commissioned with the construction of an AUDIO MARK (and whether we are conscious of this activity or not).

For this reason, I do not always think of an Audio Mark as a micro musical work itself, but instead as a communication asset composed of sonic elements, especially in regards to non melodic marks. Such composition is often closer to sound design, in my mind, being born of qualitative research, analysis and a methodical construction process rather than simply inspired composition.

The outcome of inspired composition is not always immediately apparent, nor the activity always directed. When making music we may simply want to entertain; and the music may have no reason for being at all, except that we conceived it, either as formalized composition or improvisation. In contrast to this common artistic process, the construction or design of an Audio Mark is always crafted with purpose, and often to a client's detailed specifications. Thus, if the outcome of traditional composition can be said to be our moods set to music, marks represent the attempt to package data into non verbal sound. In other words, we are asking ourselves how sound may be used for signification.

This process is not limited to commercial branding; it has long been used in the creation of scores whose themes and other elements might serve to indicate an actor, an animal, the weather, or something else.

But when our task is branding, then much like a Morse code pattern, our intention not so much to create an entertaining rhythm but to package data in a way that a given audience can and will actually decode the resultant sonic expression And if the message is not so distinct as to be unintelligible, and coded with cultural conventions in mind, then there actually stands a very good chance that it will be received and understood.


While music fundamentally suggests mood, I believe that brands –if they are to live in the world as semi or crowd conscious entities– shouldn't be defined or limited by the results of a mood board alone. What kind of actual person only possesses a single mood? Psychopaths and sociopaths. Certainly,  some management teams might be accused as lacking empathy, but when crafting identity assets for a client, one should create assets that might be made to respond in the same manner as healthy human attributes. To put it another way, our moods ebb and our reputation might change, but our identity is generally regarded as stable.

Identity assets should therefore be responsive, and crafted in a way that allows for scale and variation. Easier done in print with size and color; and easy still, if our mark is melodic in nature, but somewhat more difficult if the mark has been produced as an immutable sonic construction, for instance, when designed as a parallel experience and synchronized to a specific moving image. Nevertheless, if we want a mark to carry, then it must possess the capacity to scale infinitely, or at least within a set of parameters that we identify as true to that specific identity.

This is not to suggest that every mark be designed as a musical motif, though the two concepts in their most popular forms share similar characteristics.

But something very different happens when we hear a mark than when we listen to a motif. A strong mark will be perceived as a whole entity and independent of any other asset within the same single framed context.  Motives, on the other hand, while they may express variation, are perceived as dependent on other assets within the same single framework.

Motives, on the other hand, are deployed in such a way as to produce continued delight and interest with every variation. Indeed, we might even define traditional music not as organized sound, as is the convention, but as any construct that employs reiteration and also, the thematic variation of a pattern. Given this definition, the thing might not even be aural, which is why we can look at the sky or the ocean, or  even traffic, and describe it as a musical experience.

Music is essentially patterns at play.

And it's also why we may not always frame an Audio Mark as a musical work. It does use elemental musical sounds in its construction, but it is of singular design and voices so quickly any inherent patterning is either lost or non existent. Repeat it again and again without variation, and while the result will likely demand our attention, it may equally be perceived as annoying if the alerting sound does not signify incoming important information, hence our response to Ringtones.

We can very easily design interesting or pleasing ringtones, but our perception of any ringtone will nevertheless be shaped by the user and those nearby.  We might even forgo the repeating tone, riff or sample and actually trigger a complete work with each incoming call, but it even high fidelity rendition of recording of 'Ode to Joy' by the Berlin Philarmonic might strike another commuter as irritating if the phone's owner continued to receive multiple calls between Dover and Brick Church.

And it may be that the Alert construction is the most effective construct for a Ringtone simply because it frames the subsquent experience as one of information processing.


Melodic audio marks also share some similar characteristics to another form of sonic identity asset, being THE BROADCAST STING. Both Audio Mark and Broadcast Sting serve as a form of conceptual punctuation that sends a single message –again, like Morse code. But unlike Morse code, we do not want to hear either a sting or a mark repeat within a single context. Or if it does repeat, the inherent message of both the sting and mark become diminished by the sense of urgency conveyed by the repetitive aural experience. Alternately, if this is the desired effect, then the message is simply reduced to 'URGENT'.
Of course, all four forms of micro musical expression discussed here –The Audio Mark, the Descending Cadence, The Ringtone and The Broadcast Sting– are designed to work like zipped semiotics, which once open, a given marketer's message will be decoded and delivered.

I've participated in the production of several network package music and sound design projects: CNN, ESPN, HBO Zone, MTV, PBS and VH1, to name a few.

Interestingly, The Broadcast Sting is the only expression of the four that is not constructed as an independent statement. Ending on an anticipatory high note, the Sting, while designed to brand a television station, network or cable channel, is also designed as an open ended inconclusive element, which if we compare to sentence structure,

suggests interruption. The Sting thus requires a listener/viewer to wait until later (typically, 'after these messages') before being 'rewarded' with aural or musical closure (finishing the sentence). Indeed, the Sting does not so much announce who he is, as he compel us to wait another moment before closing with a big reveal.

Whatever construction is appropriate to the task, the message is clear: even micro musical structures can be employed in the support of storytelling; and a skilled sonic artisan can capably convey a lot of non verbal information in mere seconds, and sometimes in even just one second.