Posts filed under “Popular Entertainment”
NOW YOU KNOW…
There are some bits of knowledge that are so essential to one’s participation in civilized life that one wonders how one lived so long without them. You might also need to know that Tweety is “Titi,” and Sylvester is “Sylvestre.”
THE FAVORITE-SONG GAME.
But first, a possibly related phenomenon was brought up by our frequent correspondent “James the lesser,” who asks, “how often do you hear someone whistling to themselves? The good Doctor is old enough to remember the art.”
Indeed, Dr. Boli is a practitioner of the art, though he keeps an alto recorder, otherwise known as an English flute, next to the desk for occasions when more advanced forms of whistling are required.
But it is not hard to guess why whistling is nearly extinct. Here is a sociological experiment you can perform yourself, as long as the ethics committee doesn’t hear about it. In fact, it can be made into a kind of competitive game. Simply ask friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers, “What is your favorite song?” Once you have received the answer, “follow up” (as the journalists say) with the question, “Why is that your favorite song?” If we are playing this as a game, the winner is the first person who finds as much as a single subject who mentions anything at all about the music rather than the lyrics. It may take quite a while to finish this game, but the winning strategy would probably be to conduct one’s interrogations in retirement homes noted for a high centenarian population. For people under the century mark, the purpose of a song is to convey an idea, the music being a sort of unfortunate necessity without which the words are less effective.
Does this phenomenon have something to do with the juvenilization of culture? Possibly, although Dr. Boli would be more inclined to say that it is the ultimate triumph of American puritanism. A century ago, the average educated American sneered at the Methodist fanatics who insisted that the only legitimate music was the stuff listed under “8787D” or “CM” in the metrical index to your standard hymnal. Today the average educated American has become one of those Methodist fanatics. Art must have a practical function, or it is not only useless but evil. Music by itself has no function. Therefore the only acceptable music is that which, by accompanying and emphasizing words, makes it easier to convey useful discourse. The idea of an “instrumental,” as songs without words were called in the first half of the twentieth century, is nonsense to a puritan, and whistling is a kind of instrumental performance without an instrument.
IN THE MOOD.
Sorry to be one those “actually” people, but Glenn Miller’s band really wasn’t a swing band. It wasn’t exactly a cornball band, either, but it wasn’t remotely close to Basie, Ellington, Lunceford. The best bands were black bands like the ones I mentioned, though Tommy Dorsey, Goodman and Woody Herman were also quite good.
First of all, no one needs to apologize for being one of those “actually” people around here. We thrive on debate about the actual: that is, the objective truth. So if Dr. Boli disagrees with Mr. Salmon, he wants it to be understood that he is disagreeing on those terms. He thinks Mr. Salmon’s taste is impeccable, because Dr. Boli doesn’t like Glenn Miller much either. In the days when Miller’s band was at its peak, whenever someone asked “Would you like to go hear Glenn Miller or…,” Dr. Boli usually picked “or” before even hearing the second name. This did expose him to the danger of Guy Lombardo, but that was perhaps a lesson in patient self-restraint that he needed to learn.
But it seems to him that there is no objective criterion by which Tommy Dorsey’s can be called a “swing band” and Glenn Miller’s not. If swing music is four-beat jazz with space left for solos and frequent use of riffs, then that is what both of them played. They also played sweet music: they were not uncompromising like Lunceford or Goodman, who played even their ballads in swing style. But if one was a swing band, so was the other. The only conceivable definition of “swing” that excludes Miller and not Dorsey is Swing is music I like, and not-swing is music I don’t.
And now, as a little expedition into musical history for the musical fanatics, we are going to trace the evolution of Glenn Miller’s most-remembered hit. In so doing we’ll see how Glenn Miller radically simplified swing until it was pared down to a kind of essential obviousness that even today’s teenagers can understand. It was brilliant marketing; whether it did any favors to the music will be left for readers to decide. We’ll link to YouTube for every recording we mention.
The riff that forms the basis of “In the Mood” has a long history under different titles. It first appears in 1930 as “Tar Paper Stomp” by Wingy Mannone (more commonly spelled “Manone”). This is a small-group jazz recording, but with a Chicago-style four-beat rhythm that is already headed toward swing.
In 1931, Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, an encyclopedia of Harlem jazz talent, recorded “Hot and Anxious,” which uses the same riff in the second chorus and adds several other riffs. This is a stompingly obvious performance by Henderson standards, but it has much more variety than the Glenn Miller recording that plays in your head when you think of “In the Mood.”
The Mills Blue Rhythm Band picked it up for “There’s Rhythm in Harlem,” and Dr. Boli will admit that this is his favorite of the whole lot. Again, the “In the Mood” riff stands at the head of a procession of riffs and solos, but the band tears into it with such joyous abandon that we might wish swing music had never progressed from here.
In 1938, Edgar Hayes and His Orchestra recorded the riff under the title “In the Mood” for the first time, credited to Joe Garland, and for the first time you’ll hear that familiar introduction you remember from Miller’s version, but then—once again—a succession of other riffs. Dr. Boli thinks this performance is objectively better than Glenn Miller’s version, but it is more complex, which puts it at a disadvantage.
Artie Shaw bought “In the Mood” from Joe Garland, though as far as Dr. Boli knows he never made a record of it. By the late 1930s, though, radio broadcasts were often being transcribed, sometimes by amateurs with good home recording equipment, so here is a live performance by Artie Shaw of “In the Mood.” You will note that it is six and a half minutes long, because although Shaw’s band slows it down to a speed even slower than Miller’s recording, the Shaw version still includes a whole string of other riffs. It would have taken two sides of a ten-inch record if it had been commercially released. Shaw seems to have decided that it was too long and boring and didn’t know how to fix it.
And so finally we come to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” and we can see what Miller did to it. He simplified it radically, eliminating all but a couple of the riffs, and returning to the introductory riff with some of his trademark trick stops to pound it into your brain. Dr. Boli will emphasize that this is not a bad recording. It’s pretty good swing music. It just isn’t as good as any of the others (with the exception of Artie Shaw’s, which Dr. Boli agrees is too long and boring). But it is much, much simpler and demands much less attention from the musical part of your brain.
Glenn Miller was actually a very talented arranger who got his start writing remarkable scores for the Dorsey Brothers. When he formed his own band, he thought he would finally have a chance to pull out all the stops and write really interesting stuff. (Listen to his “I Got Rhythm,” where he outweighs the melody with a flamboyant countermelody in the reeds—and of course ends with some of his trademark trick stops.) He nearly starved to death. Just before he and the band opened their last can of Heinz Vegetarian Baked Beans, he hit on the winning formula of appealing to the musical lowbrows, and the rest is history—proving H. L. Mencken’s dictum that no one ever went broke by underestimating the taste of the American public.
So, once again, it is Dr. Boli’s contention that Glenn Miller’s was indeed a swing band, and he does not have to like the band to say that. It meets the objective criteria of four-beat rhythm, riffs, jazz solos, and all the other things that make up swing as a style. It just isn’t Dr. Boli’s idea of good swing music. He will go back to the Mills Blue Rhythm Band for that. Mr. Salmon has good taste in the only objective way anyone can be said to have good taste, which is that his taste agrees with Dr. Boli’s.
TONIGHT ON DUMONT.
Tragic Backstory Academy. A new student at the Academy is shunned, mocked, bullied, and hounded to the brink of suicide for being the only student without a tragic backstory. Check local listings.
HEY, CODERS! WHO WILL CREATE THIS BROWSER EXTENSION?
Dr. Boli does not like information presented in video form. What he especially dislikes is running across a Web page that is so certain he wants his information in video form that it immediately starts playing a video at him without his permission. And the very worst offenders are the pages that do have information that is meant to be read, but overwhelm it with dancing animations and videos that make it impossible to keep our eyes on the text. For example, the current front page of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh site, which fills the screen with a confused cacophony of moving images to inform us that we can get a printed program guide if we like. Can anyone think of a better way to inform readers of the availability of printed schedules of library programs than with a video showing library patrons dancing around with the printed guide and not reading it?
That was the site that finally sent Dr. Boli off on a quest for some way to kill the moving images. If you use Firefox, there is a simple setting to disable autoplay. If you use Chrome or Edge, there is no such setting. There used to be years ago, but it was taken away, on the grounds (we suppose) that users were abusing it by disabling autoplay, which is a rotten thing to do. Advertisers pay good money to Google to place animated ads all over the Web, and Google does not fund the Chromium project just to flush that money down the sewer. What was that famously aspirational Google slogan again? “Let’s be evil”? Something like that.
Fortunately, there are browser extensions that will accomplish the same thing. But there is not yet a browser extension that does exactly what Dr. Boli would like. The one he uses right now stops videos from automatically playing without his permission, which is good as far as it goes. What Dr. Boli would really like, however, is an extension that would allow him to click on any video or animation that started by itself, and with that click simultaneously kill the movement on the page and deliver a harmless but painful electric shock to the Web designer who thought the autoplaying video was a good idea. Dr. Boli is prepared to reward a programmer who can create such an extension with his patronage. Note that, if the “harmless” part of the specifications proves impossible to implement, Dr. Boli is still likely to be generous.
A QUESTION ABOUT COPYRIGHT.
As of January 1, the creative artists who worked on that picture are no longer enjoying the exclusive Right to it, and are thus discouraged from contributing more to the Progress of Science and useful Arts. At the age of 136, just when he might be hoping to retire on the earnings of a successful career entertaining millions, Al Jolson is cut off without a cent. Of course, Al Jolson was probably not making royalties anyway; it is really Jack Warner, the genius behind the project, whose profits have been mercilessly yanked from his grasp. Fortunately he is still a relatively young man at only 130 and may expect to recoup his fortunes with another project. Silent movies are about due for another revival.
At any rate, thinking about the length of copyright brings up our question for this evening. The Wikipedia article on the Copyright Clause in the United States Constitution mentions that what got us into the current state of copyright was “the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, also known pejoratively as the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act.’ ”
Here is our question: If you presented those two names to a randomly selected pool of intelligent Americans and asked “Which of these names is the pejorative one?”—would the number of correct answers be higher than would be expected by random chance?
MOTION PICTURE NOTES.
Her Sad Mistake. Essanay, 2 reels. In the first reel, Mavis disrespects Webster’s Dictionary by using it to prop up a sash. In the second reel, she misspells “fritillary” and suffers the consequences.
Aida. Lubin, 5 reels. In a lavish picturization, Verdi’s masterpiece comes to life with spectacular sets, exquisite costumes, gripping drama, and everything but the music.
A Bad Day at the Bakery. Keystone, 1 reel. Willie the hobo just got a job making deliveries for Piccelli’s Bakery, and his first assignment is to get fifty custard pies down to the osteopaths’ convention in town. But then the cops who’ve been chasing him all morning catch up to him. Goodness! What will Willie do?
How the Daughters of the American Revolution Saved Iowa. Kalem, 4 reels. When wicked labor agitators plot to organize workers at Davenport’s only tweed mill, the plucky ladies of the Davenport chapter of the D. A. R. see the socialist danger lurking behind the deceptively benign slogans.
The Royal Mess. Vitagraph, 2 reels. A duke disguised as a salesman woos a shopgirl who is actually a countess in disguise. But can they avoid the watchful eye of the floorwalker, who is actually Kaiser Franz Josef II of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?
Now, here is where it would have been useful a few years ago, when that discovery was first made by some unheralded cultural pioneer, if YouTube had made it easy to use small capitals in the comments. Small capitals convey an impression of authority and finality. The world would have been a better place if, under that first video, someone had left a comment like this: “Hey, I notice you used your editing software to cut out all the pauses.
In his 239 years on this earth, Dr. Boli has had the privilege of meeting a number of people in unusual professions. He vividly remembers meeting, in about 1980 or so, a man who had what struck Dr. Boli at the time as one of the most unusual professions he had ever run across. This man worked for a firm that accelerated recordings of human speech. Until very recently, he explained, increasing the speed of a recording necessarily increased the pitch as well, and grown men turned into screeching pixies. But now, in the wonderful world of 1980, technology had finally reached the point where it was possible to increase the speed of a recorded voice and keep the pitch the same.
Dr. Boli does not recall what the purpose of this accelerated speech was. He imagines it as sponsored by a cabal of very impatient executives who wanted to absorb as much information as possible about the West German Betamax market before they had to tee off at 2:30. But whatever the ultimate purpose of it, exhaustive research went into this project. Plenty of data had been accumulated about exactly how fast human speech can hit the human ear and still be processed by the human brain.
But what about the pauses? Surely much time is wasted in the pauses. Human speakers are hampered by the necessity of breathing, but machines do not share that requirement. All that inhalation is just dead time in the recording. Could we not add considerably to the speed of the presentation by eliminating the breaths and pauses?
Here, our expert explained, is where the research came up with an answer that was perhaps counterintuitive at first. No matter how much the speech itself was accelerated, a certain amount of dead time had to be accepted. The reason was psychological. When we are listening intently to a speaker, we naturally begin to breathe in synchronization with the speech we are hearing. When the company experimented with eliminating breaths and pauses, the test listeners found themselves out of breath and irritated. It was not good for them to hear a steady unbroken stream of words.
Has this research been invalidated? Dr. Boli himself, an experimental group of one, finds YouTube videos in which pauses and breaths have been cut out so irritating that he simply refuses to watch them at all. But perhaps he is out of touch with the times. Perhaps most people of a younger generation—the generation born after the War of 1812—much prefer to have an unbroken stream of words hurled at their ears without any inhalations to break up the flow of aural stimulation.
So he throws the question out to his readers. Which of you prefer to have all pauses edited out of a monologue? What are your reasons? And if no one can be found who actually does prefer this style of editing, why has it become the norm on YouTube but not on commercial television? Your theories, tangential observations, and cranky complaints are welcome in the comments. Please punctuate properly.
ASK YOUR DOG.
Scientifically speaking, this is balderdash. Our current styles of acting are stale and ritualized, almost liturgically artificial. The only reason we insist that acting in our current movies and television entertainment is “natural” is because we have agreed to consider certain clichés as standing in for nature.
We say scientifically speaking because Dr. Boli has proved his assertion by a scientific experiment that does not depend on the reaction of a human audience. He asked the dog. If you have a good watchdog at home, you can try the same experiment yourself.
First, you can play a movie or television show on your computer so that the dog can hear it. Result: Dog does nothing. Dog knows that dog is not hearing real people talking: it is ritualized performance recorded somewhere else, at some other time, and is of no concern to dog.
Now make a video call to some friend from the same computer, so that the sound comes out of the loudspeaker at the same volume. Result: Dog leaps into a barking frenzy to warn you of a perimeter breach. Dog can hear that this is a real person talking. It is not ritualized performance at all.
Nothing has changed in the quality or source of the sound. The only thing that has changed is the rhythm and expression of the person talking. Dog ignores the fictional character because dog has learned that fictional characters are not real people and do not invade the house.
The same, incidentally, is true of news and information programs. Reporters have their own ritualized expression, which is completely uninteresting to dogs. Dogs understand the difference between television personalities and real people—a lesson we humans would do well to learn.
So the next time you hear someone praise the utterly natural performance of a certain actor, ignore the critic. Ask your dog instead. Your dog is a better judge.
IN MUSIC NEWS.
The Earl’s Own Early Music Ensemble invites the public to a Sing Along with Palestrina concert at O’Brady’s Bar and Grill on Saturday at 8 p.m. Three-drink minimum.
Popular middlebrow band The Luxurious Socks have denied the rumors of a breakup, saying that the band simply needed some “apart time” and will be going to separate continuing-education classes to learn more about, like, psychology and stuff.
Rap-jazz fusion artist Felonious Thelonious will be guest-hosting Face the Nation this Sunday.
British rock legend Sir Jeremy Freakout has released his first single in five decades. Titled “Nothing Freaks Me Out Anymore,” the song consists of a rhythm track, a number of repeated cues from late-night public-affairs programming, and Sir Jeremy’s own distinctive snoring.