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July 7, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance

B-Boy Year One: A Bad Beginning

First of a series looking back on my first year of breakdancing.

People often ask me why I started breakdancing. "Spite," I usually reply, because if there's one thing I've learned in life, it's how to set up an attention-getting device.

In early 2009, a friend of mine in the non-profit sector invited me to a book club run by a group of D-list conservative pundits and professional think-tank employees (average age: 65 million years. Like the dinosaurs. They were old, is what I'm saying here). It was exactly as awful as it sounds. On the other hand, they served free pizza and it gave me stories to tell. Still, by the last meeting, I was fed up with the discussions, with the topic ("civic religion," which made me feel like Groucho Marx: whatever it is, I'm against it), and with the majority of the participants. So before it wrapped up, I decided to pick a fight.

For the last class, in addition to discussing an Ursela le Guin short story, the organizer told us that we'd round out the experience by singing patriotic music as a group. When my turn came, I said that I hadn't prepared any particular songs--that, in fact, I found most patriotic music to be saccharine and hokey. Instead, I noted that when I thought of music that was uniquely American, what came to mind were jazz and hip-hop: they're both musical forms birthed here (instead of derived from another country's folk music), they both emphasize individual expression within a collaborative structure, and most importantly, they define value in terms of improvisation and invention. All of which struck me as a pretty good description of the American national character, for better or worse.

From the room's dead-eyed stare, followed by its loud denunciation of my ideas, my parentage, and possibly my genetic material (for those members of the room that believed in that new-fangled "DNA" invention), you'd have thought I'd suggested replacing the national anthem with "Big Pimpin'." The rest of the meeting was pretty much derailed: petty revenge achieved! But the irony of it was that while I had argued sincerely, I wasn't really a jazz or hip-hop fan. I generally disliked the former, and never really listened to the latter. After I left the group, that kept bothering me. If I was serious about my argument, I thought, I really ought to put my money where my mouth was and do something about my near-total ignorance of hip-hop. A little bit later, I signed up for my first dance class at Joy of Motion in Bethesda.

I like telling this story for a couple of reasons. One is that I think it's genuinely amusing, and explains how a sedentary rock-and-roll type (read: suburban white boy) like me ended up dancing to hip-hop. But another is that it reminds me that there's no such thing as a bad motivation. I started b-boying because I needed to get more exercise, because I wanted to meet new people, and because it was part of a cultural tradition I wanted to learn more about. But yes, it was also partly out of spite. And that's okay.

Now granted, there are an awful lot of people out there who fuel their worldly interactions with spite, to no positive effect. You know these people: they're the ones who don't understand why certain words are off limits to their particular demographic, or who get upset when they need to press a button to continue an automated phone call in English. I've never really understood that, just as I don't understand people who, when they accidentally step on someone's feelings in a conversation, can't simply apologize and move on (seriously guys, it doesn't cost you anything to say you're sorry even if you're really not). Nobody would say that those are healthy expressions of conflict. Is it possible I've learned the wrong lesson?

The difference, I hope, between those cases and my own comes from the target for that anger. Striking out at other people from spite? Not productive, not cool--and yet, something that many people (including myself) do all too often. What I aimed to do instead was to direct my energies toward myself, using them to kick-start my self-improvement. The resulting experiences with breakdancing have been almost entirely positive: I'm in better shape, I've made new friends and discovered new music, and it's a great conversation starter. I've got lots of reasons that I'm going to stick with it. And yet, none of this would have happened in the first place if I hadn't gotten annoyed at a group of cranky old hip-hop haters. It's like the old saying: living well (or dancing badly) is the best revenge.

May 11, 2010

Filed under: music»artists»thao

When We Swam

Clearly shot on a total shoestring, but no less adorable for it.

May 4, 2010

Filed under: music»artists»black_keys

Tighten Up

"Frank is a funkasaurus rex. Frank has a profile on eharmony.com if any of you single ladies out there are into puppet dinosaurs with sweet dance moves."

April 8, 2010

Filed under: music»recording»mp3

Bitrot

Digital files don't wear out, right? This is one of the big advantages of the medium, particularly in studio situations: people love the warmth of tape, but it's fragile and it loses a tiny bit of fidelity every time you play it, much less when you make a copy. If you read a lot of studio how-to articles (a guilty pleasure of mine), a common theme is the engineer who records on tape for the sound, then immediately dumps it into Pro Tools for actual editing and mixing. And of course you can make a perfect copy of a digital file, where as there's no such thing in analog.

With one exception: back when DRM'd music sales were the norm, the typical way to remove that DRM was to burn the file to a CD and re-rip to MP3 format. This was seen as kind of a kludge, because the process involves conversion to a lossless .WAV format and then back into lossy pyschoacoustic compression. In theory, every time this happens, the latter step means a loss of information, and thus fidelity.

But how much of a loss? I started wondering this when I went to make a CD for a fellow dance student from some MP3 files I'd gotten from More Than A Stance. I didn't know how he planned to play them or how tech-savvy he was, so audio CDs seemed like a better choice than audio files on a data CD. But if he decided to rip the CDs back, how bad would the quality hit be? I decided to find out.

Using some shell scripting (first PowerShell, then old-fashioned batch files--never use a computer without at least one scripting option, kids), I sent a couple of MP3 files through a conversion roundtrip a few hundred times. My choices were "Beam Katana Chronicles" from the No More Heroes soundtrack and a remix of the Jackson Five's "Life of the Party" from DJ D.L.'s Soul Movement II, picking these particular tracks for a few reasons:

  • Both tracks are relatively close to the real-world case I was trying to figure out, with the latter being an actual dance track.
  • Both were layered compositions, with plenty of detail to lose during conversion.
  • Both included strong percussion tracks with plenty of hi-hat and snare--the kinds of high-frequency transient noises that easily smear and blur under psychoacoustic compression.
I used LAME to do the decoding and encoding at a 256kbps bitrate. On the first test, I actually ran the file out to a separate .wav and back. The second time, I figured out how to pipe the stdout from one LAME instance to the stdin of a second, and just bounced it between two MP3 files, which was much faster.

The results were surprising. Here's a table with some samples (caution: may be loud), which I'll summarize below.

iterations trackaudio
original No More Heroes
DJ D.L.
50 No More Heroes
DJ D.L.
100 No More Heroes
DJ D.L.
500 No More Heroes
DJ D.L.
At under 10 iterations, I can't tell a difference between the two files. At 30-50, it's subtle--there's a little bit of swirliness around the high end, and the transients are a little blurry, but nothing more than you'd expect from, say, a turntable. It's not until you hit 100 iterations--that's 100 times going from an MP3 file to a WAV and back--that it starts to become noticeable. At that point, there's some definite artifacting, and you can start to hear a little bit of pumping in the volume after each peak. Even still, it's not much beyond the extremes of dynamic compression that have emerged from the loudness wars, and if you snuck it into my playlist I wouldn't guarantee that I'd pick it out. Once you get beyond 100, it becomes more obvious that something's broken. By 500, there's some real glitchiness going on when the track hits full volume--surprisingly, much more in the NMH track than the J5, although the latter also has its "underwater washing machine" moments.

There are a few holes in my experiment that would be interesting to test:

  • I used a symmetrical encoding and decoding process, with the same codec feeding into itself. It would be interesting to see how a mix of two or more encoders would change these results. It's likely that this would accelerate the decay rate, but would it be enough to overcome the sizeable margin in this test?
  • Likewise, this was a test of high-bitrate encoding--simply because that's the scenario where most people would realistically encounter. I'm guessing the minimum bitrate for most people is 192kbps, and anything you buy these days is usually higher. But yes, at lower bitrates I'm guessing this is dramatically more detrimental.
  • Finally, this is a test of MP3. I like MP3, and I think the folks behind LAME have done about as good a job with it as they could, but it is a last-generation compression format. It'd be interesting to see how OGG, AAC, or WMA could stack up against it.

Still, I have to admit this is far better performance than I expected going in, and I was cheering for LAME to begin with. I think we can safely reach the conclusion that for limited, real-world cases of digital dubbing, there's no serious impact on sound quality that wasn't already lost in the first MP3 encoding. Burn and rip away!

March 29, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance

The Plan

Soon after I started taking b-boying classes, I gave myself a goal: in October 2010, I'm going to enter DC's Crafty Bastards 2 vs. 2 battle and try not to make a total idiot of myself. It's a low bar, and I've got about six months to meet it.

At that point, I'll have been breaking for just over a year. I'll need to be able to do a pretty good toprock set, drop, run through some reasonably fluent footwork, and either incorporate or end with some kind of freeze. Right now, I've got maybe half of that, and even that half needs work. So here's the Plan:

  • Regular practice: Now that's it's warm enough, I need to be building endurance, particularly for footwork, where I currently last about 20 seconds and then collapse in a sweaty mass. That means I need to be dancing more. So every morning when the weather is nice, before I get ready for work, I'm heading down to the park to do drills for fifteen or twenty minutes, working up to hopefully a full hour by October. This is in addition to my Wednesday practice, Thursday class, and Sunday open practice at the studio.
  • Speaking of footwork, it's arguably what needs the most improvement (my freezes are also weak, but that's a more advanced problem). Footwork is the part of the dance that takes place on the ground, and I basically ignored it in favor of toprock for the first six or seven months of classes. Now I need to get it up to speed. My goal is to polish my six-step and CCs, plus get coffeegrinders, monkey-swings, Zulu rolls, and four-step into working shape. Adding three-step would be a nice, but unlikely, bonus.
  • Remember variety: The second problem I have in footwork is not a lack of knowledge, but a lack of ready vocabulary. I often forget about certain moves when I'm on the ground, and end up repeating the same thing again and again. A move you can't remember is worthless, so I need to keep the variety high in my practice drills.
  • Integrate a little popping: I started taking popping classes off and on in October last year, and I really enjoy it. I'm also really bad at it, but I'm trying to work on my fundamentals, and it'd be nice to be able to work some of that into some threading or footwork eventually.
  • Freeze transitions: The one last thing I'd like to be able to do is move between freezes. I'd be happy with switching legs in a baby-freeze, then dropping into a shoulder freeze. An elbow-based air freeze would be cool, too, but I'm not very comfortable upside-down yet.

On top of all this is a need to remedy my general lack of physical fitness. B-boying has been a fantastic workout--I lost about twenty pounds almost immediately, and I'm certainly a lot stronger than I used to be--but it's not yet enough. So throw some push-ups and sit-ups into the mix, and maybe some jogging with Belle and the dog.

On a more observational note: this weekend I went down with a friend to Circles 11, the JMU Breakdance Club's annual b-boy/hip-hop event. A good time was had by all: the battles were thrilling, the MCs got chewed out by DJ Skeme Richards, and I got to meet some fresh faces. I only had one real problem: there were too many crews.

Not in absolute terms, of course--the more b-boys and b-girls out there, the better. But Circles had 54 crews entered for its 4 vs. 4 battles, each of which had to go through a qualifying round with another crew. That's 27 prelim battles, even before the 8-crew bracket could get started (another seven battles that get extra time). It takes a long time to get through 27 battles--at 8 dancers per battle, that's 216 rounds.

It's so long, in fact, that burnout starts to set in about half-way through. After about 15 battles, you're overloaded in amazing power-moves and tricks, to the point where you start to dismiss even the most incredible feats. "Sure, you did a windmill into a broken-wrist airflare and ended on a perfect elbow freeze. Yawn. What else ya got?" When you realize that you've become this jaded, it's a bit of a shock. I do think it's telling that musicality doesn't suffer nearly as much--dancers who specialize in rocking the beat still hold interest long after the powerheads blur together.

I'm a newbie to the scene, so I hesitate to make prescriptions, but you can feel the energy draining out of the room when there are so many prelim rounds. I'd almost like to see big events limited to 40 crews or so, to keep it from getting ridiculous. Or perhaps we need a way to dual-track prelim rounds, if there were a way to do it fairly. But I feel like there's got to be a way to cut things down a bit and keep the energy up. Not that anyone's going to listen to me for organizational advice.

March 12, 2010

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Extraordinary

There's a striking pair of comments early in the TED video above. It's a demonstration by the League of Extraordinary Dancers, who also had a bit at the Oscars this year. Director John Chu comes out to give some background on the project, and at around 3:20 he naturally (given the conference in question) comments on the relationship of street dance to information technology:

I got to meet a ton of hip-hop dancers -- amazing, the best in the world -- and they brought me into a society, the sort of underground street culture that blew my mind. I mean this is literally human beings with super-human strength and abilities. They could fly in the air. They could bend their elbow all the way back. They could spin on their heads for 80 times in a row. I'd never seen anything like that.

...

Dance has never had a better friend than technology. Online videos and social networking ... dancers have created a whole global laboratory online for dance, where kids in Japan are taking moves from a YouTube video created in Detroit, building on it within days and releasing a new video, while teenagers in California are taking the Japanese video and remixing it with a Philly flair to create a whole new dance style in itself. And this is happening every day.

See the disconnect there?
  1. These dancers are superhuman. Their skills are hidden in an underground subculture, away from normal people.
  2. Simultaneously, this is a movement taking place around the globe via the same tools you use to play Farmville and put up videos of your dog throwing up. It is populist and multicultural, youth-oriented and commonplace.
Man, I can't think of a better way to discourage people from joining in the second category than by framing it via the former.

When I was a kid, I decided for about a month that I was going to be a magician. This was probably right after I wanted to be a concert pianist, and before wanting to be an astronaut. My uncle, who worked as an editor for various trade publications, somehow found a magazine for working magicians as a gift to me. I remember that half of it was advertisements for cheesy magic gizmos, and the other half was how-to guides for building your own cheesy magic gizmos. Even as it demystified David Copperfield shows for me forever, it also sent a message: I could do this, because (like any skill) magic isn't really a mystical power, but a combination of cleverness and practice.

I gave up on my magic career soon afterward, but one of my favorite discoveries from b-boying and popping has been the degree to which they both incorporate tricks--I mean, illusions.


(I love that line.)

That's not to denigrate the hard work and ingenuity that's required. It's hard to do a handstand freeze. It take a lot of effort and concentration to pull off a convincing wave. I can attest personally to the fact that you have to be in really good shape to do more than thirty seconds of footwork--and that you can be in a lot of pain the next morning if you try before you're ready. These things aren't easy--but simultaneously, they're sometimes not as hard as they look. And a lot of moves (glides come to mind) were created to look like the laws of physics are being broken, by misdirecting the audience on where the dancer's weight is located, or what body part is actually doing the movement.

I've never understood the thought process of people who think that explaining an illusion ruins it. It's not any less fun watching someone do a blow-up power move just because you know the steps that go into it. The illusion hooks you in, but it's the craftsmanship that makes it endure. In fact, sometimes showing what went into a skill actually helps an audience appreciate it fully.


("And a potato!")

So I think it's pretty cool that someone's gotten a bunch of great dancers together, and that they're doing a web series based on it. It's a neat idea, and a smart way to build publicity for people who probably haven't gotten enough recognition. But I wish they wouldn't tag it as "superhuman." It's the humanity of it--the hard work, talent, and the lack of special effects--that's what makes it interesting in the first place.

February 16, 2010

Filed under: music»tools»effects

Recombinant

You may have heard that there was a blizzard last week, trapping the entire East coast indoors for about five days straight. Walking the dog in the morning after a big snowfall was like stepping into an apocalyptic movie cliche: howling wind, half-buried automobiles and buildings, and no sign of other life to be found. Even for a misanthrope like me, it was a little creepy. Belle started to go stir-crazy around day 2. I lasted a bit longer, but by Wednesday I needed something to do that wasn't beamed through an LCD screen, so I broke out my bass and pedals for the first time in a while, and started rearranging things.

For the serious pedal-head, it's possible to enter a kind of trance-like feedback loop while searching for new sounds: you shift between playing a lick, twiddling a few knobs, and listening intently to determine whether the new sound has moved closer to the ideal in your head. Play, adjust, listen, rinse and repeat. And there's no better way to trigger this kind of behavior than to scramble the order for your pedals and randomly activate a few of them--it creates a totally new sound, acts like a mental reset button. My drug of choice, of course, is distortion, and my current favorite is the Z. Vex Woolly Mammoth that replaced an MXR M-80 Bass DI+. Since picking up the Mammoth, I'd put the MXR on a shelf temporarily, but addled by the snow and the confines of the apartment I decided to put the two of them in series and see what kind of overdrive I could get.

The Mammoth doesn't like hot input from a preamp of any kind, pedal or bass, so the first experiment with the M-80 first in the signal chain didn't work out. And running the Mammoth into the M-80 with the usual distortion settings on both was interesting--it triggered a kind of overcompression effect--but the distortion from the MXR (which was once semi-accurately described to me as "bees in a tin can") was washing out the low-end from the Z. Vex. But when I kicked off the distortion and just tried the SVT-emulating clean channel on the M-80--wow. The preamp took the Mammoth's fuzz, thickened it and tamed some of the high-end. It was monstrous, and very cool, and I played with it for probably an hour and a half until I had it tweaked perfectly and my fretting fingers were sore.

The lesson here is not that I've got a new bass distortion that can level continents, although that's a nice bonus. It's the process of serendipity that got me there: being able to rewire or adjust my pedals in possibly stupid or odd ways, just to see what would happen. A good toolkit gives you that kind of freedom. That's one of the reasons I'm so keen on single-purpose effects boxes: multi-effects are just now reaching the level of sophistication that allows something as simple as shuffling the order of the signal chain, and they rarely make it fast or easy. A multi-effects unit is good if you already know what you want, but it's murder on creativity.

When I think about it, this is true for most of the tools I like to use. Javascript and PHP are ungainly, hackish languages, but the flexibility of loose typing and hash-based objects makes it easy to throw data around and see what sticks. Pro Tools is a mess from the perspective of plugin APIs and efficient resource use, but its flexible routing mixer is unmatched for patching audio around in a project. I remember first falling in love with word processing when I realized that you could move paragraphs around instantly--no more endless recopying drafts (and how I hated teachers in grade school who required handwritten reports). And we won't even get started on my unhealthy MacGyver obsession.

The Make crowd tends to say that you don't own a tool unless you can hack it. I think it's also a question of convenience--how easily can you surprise yourself when patching something together? When Mark Pilgrim wrote Tinkerer's Sunset, reminiscing about how he got started on an Apple IIe, the gateway was BASIC. And while computer scientists hate BASIC for the bad habits it spawned in a generation, it had one thing going for it: it's really easy to read and understand, as the programming equivalent of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. The only modern language with an equivalent level of ubiquity and cost is Javascript, and even it is much more difficult for a newcomer to grasp. It's harder to rewire it, harder still to find a serendipitous solution.

Or take electronics: when I was a kid, which was not that long ago, you could still take apart a stereo or a TV and see all the wires and bits inside. You could still blow a circuit breaker poking around in there, even if you never did understand what everything was (I speak from experience). Nowadays, it's all disposable system-on-a-chip engineering, even in an industry as low-tech as music. Those analog pedals of mine are a dying breed, and while I'm as big a fan of digital as you'll find, I hope there's room for both. The Z. Vex Inventobox and the Arduino are responses to the rise of black-box hardware, but they're also tacit admissions: that we have to special-order creative tools, separate from those designed for media consumption and ease-of-use.

I hope we don't lose the idea that it's possible to combine the two. You can have tools that are easy to use and easy to hack, even if we're told by designers that it has to be one or the other--that letting people open up the box would make it too complicated for the average user. Maybe it just takes a new model. If so, I nominate the humble, patchable, routable effects pedal. Because hey, if guitarists can learn to use them for boundless creativity, anyone can.

November 30, 2009

Filed under: music»performance»dance

File Under Self-Destruction

You know, once I get this b-boy thing under control, parkour is next.

November 25, 2009

Filed under: music»performance»dance

Nostalgia Break

I miss a lot of things about college--the classes, the sense of intellectual engagement, the unreasonably late hour I could roll out of bed in the morning--but one of the things I miss most is the opportunity for obsession that comes from a flexible schedule. The more I work on learning breaking and popping, the more evident it becomes that I just don't have time to vaccuum up skills at the same rate that I did as an undergraduate.

I tell this story a lot, but I started learning to play bass around the end of my junior year, and I was completely obsessed with it. I spent three or four hours every day practicing. I took it to class. I played along with my roommate's awful techno music. I drilled the same basic riffs--Flea's slap routine for "Higher Ground" and his solo during "Aeroplane," Commerford's simpler runs in Rage Against the Machine, every song from Stop Making Sense--and simple scale exercises over and over again. I got blisters, put superglue on my fingers as prosthetic calluses, eventually grew thick skin on the first two fingers of my right hand from plucking the strings.

I was, in short, pretty hardcore about my practice routine. The result is that while I claim no particularly exceptional skill as a bass player, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to play the instrument at some level until the day I die. It's totally-engrained muscle memory at this point. But looking back on it now, I'm pretty sure that there's no way I could have learned to play at the same depth--even allowing for a slower pace--if I were to start today. I just wouldn't be able to make the time, or the intensity. And when it comes to the speed at which I'm learning to b-boy, that's a hard mental adjustment to make, because I unconsciously expect to improve at the same rate.

Clearly, it's just a symptom of adult life. I work an 8-hour day with two hours of commute, so I don't have blocks of time between classes or shifts that I can devote to hobbies. Since the CQ purchase and resulting transition shakeup, I've gotten a few extra responsibilities (including some team management), and when I get home often the last thing I really want to do is sweat profusely in my apartment's laundry room. So at this point I practice popping and breaking two, maybe three times a week for around an hour at a time. Progress is slow, my footwork is still awful, and my shoulders are still way too stiff.

That said, what can you do? I enjoy my work, and don't have any desire to cut it short in any way. It's already hard enough to coordinate with Belle between my classes and the ones she teaches at the gym. And let's face it: my goal for dancing can't be (and isn't) to be the greatest, since I'm starting it late and from a very poor foundation. There's a lot to be said for aiming high--but just as much value in keeping excessive expectations from ruining the learning experience as it changes.

November 23, 2009

Filed under: music»artists»thao

Review: Know Better Learn Faster

"Wry melancholy" is perhaps the best I can do when describing "We Brave Bee Stings And All," the first album from Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. "Did he hurt you/In a new way?" she asked in one song, as if she was too bored for a romantic crash-and-burn that didn't at least offer a little novelty. I liked it quite a bit.

The group's new record, "Know Better Learn Faster," marks not so much a shift in attitude as a refinement: the humor is drier, the victories more hollow, the outlook even bleaker. The title refers to the two things you want to do as a relationship begins to come unmoored. The joke is that they're impossible. This is, according to interviews with Thao, a break-up record, but it's one that can't quite take its own melodrama seriously: from the first track ("The Clap"), in which the lyrics "If this is how you want it/Okay, okay" are transformed from a dirge into a foot-stomping rallying cry, to the last ("Easy," introduced with a muttered admonition that "sad people dance, too").

A big draw has always been singer/songwriter Thao Nguyen's voice. It's soulful at the low end, reaching into a wounded yelp during crescendos. But lots of singers have good voices. Part of what sets Nguyen apart for me is less in the tone and more in the relationship between her melodies and the lyrics. She's good with ambiguous pauses: in "When We Swam," she adds a hungry emphasis to the line "Oh, bring your hips to me" that leaves the listener momentarily unsure why she wants said hips, or her interest in the person attached to them. Likewise, the way she sings "We made it/Won't we save it?/And I fixed it!/What you hated" betrays a mixture of petulance, anger, and surprise at her own admission.

Other standout numbers include the title song, with its soaring violin accompaniment, and the self-destructive "Body," which builds repeatedly to a raging call-and-response. It's not all roses, of course: "Oh. No." lapses into mopiness, as does "But What of the Strangers." They're also, tellingly I think, the two songs that find Nguyen alone with a guitar instead of pulling energy in from the rest of the band. But these kinds of misfires are really minor symptoms of a group that's stretching out and becoming comfortable with their sound. And what a sound it is: one that looks for the grim punchline behind a broken heart.

Future - Present - Past