Still Spectacular After All These Years

Every year, the little town I live in throws a big ol’ 4th of July parade, and every year it serves as another example of how little towns live, grow, and change.

It invariably begins with the patriotic past, and history is threaded throughout: old army vehicles with an ever-dwindling population of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veterans riding them, a museum collection of old Farmall and Deere tractors, antique cars, and antique fire trucks.

Iwo Jima (2)

The Iwo Jima memorial float made (I think) its third appearance this year, built and manned by the Ida Grove (IA) American Legion post, and it remains the most impressively constructed actual float in a parade that typically features much simpler entries (including “random truck with a sign on it,” a perennially popular form of expression).

Safety and Service

This year, in addition to driving its shiny antique truck, the Storm Lake Fire Department marched in uniform with an antique hose rig, suitably flagged.

Two for One

Of course, one way you know you’re in a rural town is if your parade features tractors pulling other tractors. This is just a simple twofer — I wasn’t able to capture a picture this year of the guy who shows up pulling more than thirty (in ever-shrinking size, down to a really teeny toy).

Flag Ride (1)

Every year, there are marvelous charreria riders, marching with big smiles and big flags and magnificently well-trained horses. Storm Lake is, in its way, the demographic future of the rural midwest and west — driven by immigrants from everywhere, but especially notable for large Latinx populations that came to town for the agribusiness jobs and stayed to build lives beyond the Tyson plant.


This year, we were lucky enough to get to celebrate a special entrant: our very own Pulitzer Prize winner, Art Cullen of the family-owned, family-run, and totally local Storm Lake Times. I like to think of this as another move in the direction of a different possible future for the rural US — and it certainly tells a different (and much richer) story of midwestern small-town life than the recent barrage of post-election thinkpieces about rural Trump voters and working-class white people. Storm Lake is not nearly as simple as it looks to an outsider who wants to make a point with a color-coded map, and it is not an outlier in its complexity. This is, ultimately, what a study of the parade reveals, every year.

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How To Work A Hat

Today’s trip to the Library of Congress Flickr Stream is instructional in nature, with particular regard to applied haberdashery. Your instructor in the fine art of hattery today is the brilliant Luisa Tetrazzini, late 19th/early 20th Century coloratura soprano and generally cheery sort of person.

Tetrazzini (LOC)

That is how you wear a hat, friends. Tetrazzini-style: Like you’re brilliant and you know it, but you don’t care, because the thing you’re brilliant at is really just the thing you love to do. That is the hat of a woman who lived a big, loud, exciting life, worn just as it should be. The woman who chose that hat knew how to make an entrance, and she knew how to hold an audience.

Tetrazzini (LOC)

Her life was not always easy, either personally or professionally. She got into any number of contract disputes with a variety of financiers and sponsors, including Oscar Hammerstein (with whom she was under contract in New York). Amid her legal battle with Hammerstein, she actually performed a free street concert in San Francisco, famously saying that “I will sing in San Francisco if I have to sing there in the streets, for I know the streets of San Francisco are free.”

Toward the end of her life, ill and much poorer than she should have been, she was still the same diva in the winged hat: “I am old, I am fat, but I am still Tetrazzini.”

Still rocking it, Tetrazzini-style.


Posted in Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, music, photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Type(face)s and Tokens

The development of movable (metal) type presses is, of course, a revolutionary technological feat that changed how information was presented, stored, and shared. While we often (“we” being general folks who aren’t printers and know more about the results of the printing process than we do about the process itself) speak of printing in terms of typefaces, presses, and binderies as they are related to their output, I suspect that we don’t spend much (if any time) thinking about the internal business of typeface production, as accomplished and owned by the printers and foundries that produce the type. Among the things we (the outsiders to the business of printing and publishing books) perhaps don’t consider at all are what I think of as internal sales matters. How do printers and foundries catalog, present, and sell type itself, as they surely must?

One way in which a typesetter, printer, or foundry sells and organizes  type is through a Specimen Book of Types. These books serve as sample sales catalogs presenting available types (including ornaments and borders as well as letters) in multiple sizes; they may also demonstrate a model binding style. The trick to creating such a catalog, of course, is figuring out how best to show off the typefaces, and different printers and foundries have often put their own spin on the business. While some use lorem ipsum (a deliberately garbled selection of the Latin text of Cicero’s de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum), others have historically found ways to make their type catalogs into both subtle and overt representations of the kinds of printed content they sell.

Book of Types, Athenaeum Press

Detail of the spine of a specimen book of types from the Athenaeum Press

A few posts back, I took a look at a book from the Athenaeum Press in Cambridge, MA, created and run by Ginn & Co. in the late 19th C. The company specialized in textbooks for students in the US; according to their own promotional material, their founder, Edwin Ginn, was among the first to take the student reader seriously in his approach to textbook selection and printing. The book in the image here is a Specimen Book of Types of the Athenaeum Press (1907), and it’s a lovely example of how a press might use a type catalog to do more than just sell type. Physically, it’s a sturdy book about 19cm tall, with signatures of heavy paper held together by a sewn binding. Assuming the typical binding from Athenaeum didn’t change too much between 1907 and 1925, “the thread is made of the strongest linen and will support a sixty pound boy,” at least according to the film linked above.* The copy I own is a bit water-damaged, but the thick paper holds up well for all that, with only a moderate amount of discoloration and a little rippling to indicate where the water had gotten to it; the cover is solid, and shows little evidence of water touching it at all.

A little water damage

Pages 12-13 (slightly water damaged) of the Specimen Book of Types of the Athenaeum Press (Cambridge, MA 1907). Note the sample text.

Athenaeum’s educational mission lived not only in its products, but also in the company’s specimen book, which made do with no lorem ipsum to speak of. The English language body type is presented using a selection on the history of printing from one of Ginn & Co.’s own textbooks, Philip Van Ness Myers’ A General History for Colleges and High Schools from the 1890s. The German fraktur typeface samples discuss the history of print through Gutenberg, and the Greek samples are based on Homer’s Odyssey. Discussions of the history of printing, as it happens, aren’t at all unusual in specimen books. The Keystone Type Foundry’s abridged type specimen book from the same year (1907), for example, is one of several that used the introductory text from Theo L. De Vinne’s lecture on “Historic Printing Types” (1885) for its body type samples; it appears to have been fairly popular material for textbook publishing operations. Interestingly, lorem ipsum was not the only Latin choice for printers to play with — the Austin Letter Foundry’s type specimen book (1838) made extensive use of Cicero’s Catiline Orationsspecifically the beginning of the first. The Athenaeum specimen book, however, uses no Latin at all (although there are two sizes of Anglo-Saxon and Hebrew and a set of inscription Greek and Latin characters on p. 80).

The pages of the Athenaeum book themselves present some additional curious features. Between pages 2 and 3 (so, between the end of the list of types at the beginning of the book and the section title page for body types) there’s a much-faded sheet of graph paper with a slightly different weight and texture from the pages around it. This sheet isn’t stuck in the book like a bookmark — it’s bound there, quite clearly threaded into the first signature. It’s not entirely clear what the purpose of the graph sheet is, although it might be useful for a salesperson mocking up typeface arrangements for a client. At the end, after p. 170, there are 26 blank pages (13 sheets); there may have been more at one time, as a few sheets seem to have been very cleanly cut out, perhaps to demonstrate something about the binding. There seems to be nothing about this catalog that doesn’t somehow represent the company’s product — type is merely the beginning.



* I’m not sure why supporting a sixty pound boy is supposed to be an impressive indicator of the strength of binding thread. Why exactly are we suspending sixty-pound boys with linen thread? Was this a thing? Are sixty pound boys more of a challenge than other objects or people of the same weight?

Screen Shot from archival footage of Ginn & Co.

Apparently, that’s some strong linen, right there.

Posted in Adventures in Collection Management, Library Business, random stuff | Tagged , , , , , ,

In Case of Apocalypse, Break Into Library

While (as I’ve already said) there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the books in the Wood’s House collection, there are some popular genres and themes (broadly construed): historical fiction, outdated textbooks, and a wide variety of reference works.

Among the reference works in the collection are two rather brilliant resources for daily life, both classics of their kind: Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information (1948) and A Dictionary of Everyday Wants (1876). These hefty, comprehensive volumes (1634 pages and 539 pages, respectively) cover everything from basic first aid to running a farm or a business to going on a vacation. They also provide a fascinating snapshot of how the people who wrote and compiled them understood the world — their expectations, their priorities, the technologies with which they were familiar, etc.

Austin's New Encyclopedia of Usable Information

The front cover of Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information (1948)

Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Useful Information, for example, lives up to its title quite well for any reader trying to start a new life as an adult in 1948. From this book, one can learn how to buy and maintain a home, how to choose a pet, the myriad small details necessary for raising children and sustaining a marriage, running a farm, and a wide variety of other information including basic accounting, shorthand, typing, etc. If I had been a new bride (or groom, for that matter) in 1948, I think I would have been quite happy to receive such a book as a wedding present — in a world without/before the internet, this is just the sort of thing one might want to have around in order to make it easier to handle the basic work of being an adult.

A part of the book’s charm is its matter-of-fact approach to life as a collection of tidy, self-contained, mutually connected priorities centered on the concept of a householdOf course, it seems to say, these are exactly the things one needs to know. Whatever else could you want? A later critic, sensitive to issues beyond the book’s scope, might well quibble with some of its assumptions or values — it is not an accident that the only people photographed in it are white, for example — but might nonetheless find that it lives up to its claim to present usable information, even when it comes to human relationships. Marriage is the foundational relationship (about which quite a lot of practical information is provided, in fact), the core around which houses and businesses and farms are to be built.

FullSizeRender 8

Before there was Google, there was Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information, ready to help us learn to dry the dishes sociably with our spouses.

The book (refreshingly) assumes that its clear how-to directions ought to be enough — that is, it assumes an audience of readers capable of taking on the DIY tasks of everyday life with relatively little hand-holding and no little amount of genuine reflection and freedom of judgment. Its marriage and child-rearing advice, for example, is remarkably current and flexible — the text suggests thoughtful, respectful engagement rather than proscribing narrow solutions as a rule, which makes its advice rather reassuring. As a text aimed at making the household and householders self-sufficient, its advice leans toward helping the reader help him or herself rather than solving every problem up front. This is an encyclopedia of usable information, a title that suggests active work and decision-making on the part of its audience rather than passive compliance.

Unlike Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information, A. E. Youman’s A Dictionary of Everyday Wants presents itself in the form of a general collection of several thousand “receipts” (that’s recipes, for folks who spell stuff the new-fangled way) for home remedies, cleaning solutions, approaches to practical farm and hunting tasks (breeding livestock, skinning and preparing game, etc.), and some really questionable medical advice. The Dictionary explicitly speaks to an interesting phenomenon: the ways in which changes in resources and technologies lead to changes in how we live. Its introduction positions it as a text that addresses, in one tidy collection, current developments in a fast-changing world (1876 being no less exciting a time than 1976 or 2006, from the perspective of the folks who live there and then). The Dictionary would probably be quite a bit more use in a wilder world — it does not have the institution of the tidy “household” in a relatively prosperous and stable country as its core organizational principle or model. Rather, it seems to start from a sort of beginning — that is, it assumes something like an idea of the “civilized,” in a constant condition of challenge and development.

I suspect that, should the zombie apocalypse arrive, the Dictionary would be more useful early on, but should living humanity ever attain victory over the shambling dead, the Encyclopedia is just the thing we’d need to make the world feel like home again.




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Graduation Day



Chris Isaak’s 1995 effort Forever Blue is a sweetly sung musical breakup, complete with all of the highs and lows that the end of a relationship can encompass — everything from despair and anger to desperate, self-deluding hope. Sometimes that makes listening to it a little exhausting, and I think even a person who really likes the music might come out of the experience of listening to the whole album in one sitting more than a little depressed. Like most of Isaak’s output, it’s more nostalgic than adventurous (technically/musically speaking), but the whole thing’s so tightly and beautifully constructed and well performed that it’s hard not to like it even if more adventure is what you’d really prefer. It’s exactly what I’ve expected and enjoyed from him ever since 1985’s  Silvertone, which I wore out on cassette tape back then. It’s a more intimate sort of work than the cheerier surf-along tone of San Francisco Days (1993), its immediate predecessor, or the more chart-popular powerhouse Heart-Shaped World (1989).

It seems weirdly appropriate to me that life should remind me of this record right now, with Twin Peaks resurfacing in all of its creepy, delicious Lynchian weirdness. I remember sitting in my apartment and re-watching the original series as a graduate student (back when binge-watching something required VHS and a lot of patience), at a time when quite a lot of my experience was sort of surreal and untethered to…well, anything, except reading a lot of philosophy. Back then, I thought I knew where I’d end up. It felt fated to me, which, in retrospect, I realize was really a stupid thing for me to believe; knowing what I now know about graduate programs and job markets in the humanities, I often find myself convinced that my grad school friends who finished and went off to get law degrees had the right of it back then.

I did, for a while, end up almost exactly where I thought I would; I’ve spent fifteen years teaching philosophy to undergraduates at a little liberal arts (ish — well, little, anyway) school in a small midwestern town, and I was happy for almost all of that decade-plus-five. I settled in there as soon as I arrived, and I planned to stay. I had no ambition beyond the one I had realized by getting that job, and I devoted myself to keeping it. What it meant to keep that job, unfortunately, was also what made it almost impossible to find another in a tight job market: lots of teaching, lots of institutional service, very little writing. While I was there, academic philosophy passed me by, and I was content for the most part to permit it to do so. I had what I wanted. I had neither the need nor the desire to move on.


Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Higher Ed. in the US is in a bit of a crisis, and little schools in little towns need to make big and sometimes unpleasant decisions in order to stay alive. My employer eliminated my program and my tenured job along with it — the ultimate employment expression of “it’s not you, it’s me.” They let me go, dropping me into a hiring market that, for philosophy, is disastrously bad and not likely to improve in the near future (at least not for over-teaching under-publishers like me). As a mercy (very much appreciated — don’t get me wrong! I’ll take it!), they’ve offered me an administrative position serving a program I was instrumental in creating, although I am no longer tenured, indeed no longer faculty at all. I can still do adjunct work for them, but I am in a condition much reduced relative to my prior work and status, and even as grateful as I am for the opportunity, it is hard to let go of what I’m being forced to leave behind.

“We can still be friends.” Right. Sure. Sure we can. We are. Aren’t we?

Right now, I’m at that horrid bit of the breakup where it’s just become irrevocably real that this has happened, and I have to deal with it and move on, even in an employment market in my discipline in which moving on is sometimes impossibly hard for someone in my position (undistinguished at mid-career, neither a fresh and exciting new face with a promising book coming out nor a notable senior with an Infinite Jest-sized CV full of accomplishments). It’s graduation day here, and I can’t quite face it.


Still, there’s hope, I suppose. We are still friends for now, my institution and I (metaphorically speaking, anyway).  I will be employed next year, regardless of whether my ongoing job search turns up anything. I have plans. I’m still actively looking for library positions, and the admin job will actually afford me better opportunities to improve my work experience in a library context. I have an Open Textbook to write this summer for an online course that I’m redesigning. I have ideas and plots and schemes to put into action. There’s work still to do, and I’ve got to step up and do it.


Still, it’s undeniably sad. Today’s a tough day. I wish my colleagues and students well, but I won’t be there to help them celebrate. We may be friends, but I’m not really up to going to my ex’s wedding yet.

Posted in music, random stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Back to the Fraktur

A little while ago, I posted a few odd thoughts on the intersection of print and content in response to a much better piece of writing addressing that subject (among other things). As it turns out, I’m not quite finished with those thoughts, so I return to them here by way of yet another deaccessioned library book in my own collection: Auswahl aus Luthers Deutschen Schriften, edited with Introduction and Notes by W. H. Carruth and printed by The Athenaeum Press (Ginn & Company, Publishers) in 1899.

Cover, Auswahl aus Luthers Deutsche Schriften, 1899

Cover, Auswahl aus Luthers Deutsche Schriften, edited with introduction and notes by W.H. Carruth.

Unlike the edition of Nietzsche from 1922 that I discussed in my previous post, this earlier publication is a textbook intended for university students in the United States. It was published under the imprint of the Athenaeum Press in Boston by Ginn & Company, as a part of Athenaeum’s International Modern Languages Series. It’s in better shape than the Nietzsche book, perhaps in part due to its sturdier construction: sewn binding, heavier paper, hard cover. The Athenaeum Press is worth a post of its own, as one of the earlier printing operations built in Cambridge back when the Harvard University Press and the Riverside Press were the biggest players in town. [1]


Title page. Note the typefaces used for the German-language bits (a mix of sizes from Athenaeum’s leaded German type set) and for the name of the press (in a different Blackletter-style typeface — probably Athenaeum’s Priory Text 10 pt No. 1).

The earliest pages of the text provide a convenient snapshot of the interesting choices being made in the presentation here, including Jacob Grimm’s laudatory comment on the importance of Martin Luther’s language on the title page itself. The editor, W. H. Carruth (Professor of German Language and Literature at the University of Kansas, in the years before he became Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford), chose to assemble a selection of the writings of Martin Luther in a form that rationalized rather than normalized the text:

The rationalizing of the present text proceeds on the theory of removing all merely typographic obstacles to ease of reading, without changing anything that can be essential to the attempt to arrive at the phonetics, and above all the inflection, syntax, and vocabulary of the original (Carruth, Introduction, x).

Unlike the business of normalizing a text, the kind of rationalizing project that Carruth takes on here aims to preserve not just the apparent content expressed in the text, but also the manner of its expression. Luther’s spelling and grammar, for example, were not always regular and do not consistently match later standard or hochdeutsch usage (obviously!). In addition to the unique features of the text as written, earlier print editions sometimes introduced changes from Luther’s original manuscripts that became part of later print conventions. While these things might be corrected in a normalized edition aimed at presenting the book’s content as clearly as possible, a student of Luther’s actual language would be more likely to find a rationalized text (or a diplomatic reprint) useful. This includes preserving not only variant spellings and syntax, but also preserving the typography, for which reason Carruth’s collection of Luther’s writings features an introduction, notes, and editorial commentary in an Antiqua type mingled with Luther’s actual words in Fraktur.


A sample of the typeface mix in the Carruth collection — Antiqua mixed with Fraktur in the presentation of a diplomatic reprint

While Fraktur is used in both the Nietzsche text and in this one in order to signify a kind of authenticity with regard to the language and culture that produced the material it presents, the typeface comes to do so for each book in quite different ways. Long before the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute under way during the time period in which Carruth’s selections of Luther’s writings were printed in the United States, the use of a variety of Fraktur was a relatively reliable way to identify the works of the reformers, including Luther himself. Fraktur was for printing (reformer’s) German, Antiqua was for printing Latin. To present Luther’s German in Fraktur, then, is about more than preserving orthography — it is an act of theological preservation, in which the content of the text is deeply bound up in the typographical means used to express it. This is how Fraktur becomes “German” (and a sort of “people’s” German at that, in acknowledgement of the role Luther himself plays in the development of the language); it is the seed that eventually flowers into the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute of the 19th and 20th centuries. Carruth’s rationalized or diplomatic presentation of Luther’s writings thus occupies a rather different place from Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche‘s reprinting of her brother’s work; the American Carruth is a scholarly outsider acting as a preserver of “authentic” German language, history, and identity where Förster-Nietzsche casts herself as its restorer or protector.

  1. For those interested in exploring the history of the Athenaeum Press further (or just mildly curious about it and about the history of publishing in the US), I recommend taking a look at this lovely Souvenir of the Athenaeum Press and this fascinating silent film about Ginn & Company that includes footage covering most of the actual letterpress printing process they used at Athenaeum. Ginn & Company is now owned by Pearson, and the historic building that housed the Athenaeum Press is currently home to a great many businesses that are not, as it happens, publishers.
Posted in Adventures in Collection Management, Library Business, Philosophy, random stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Duet for Pistons and Gears

I’ve been wrestling with some thoughts about mechanical music and musical machines lately, prompted by two things that came across the ol’ Facebook transom in the last few months: an MIT Technology Review piece from December about musical composition and machine learning and my first exposure to a most marvelous form of orchestrion, the magical rarity that is the Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina.  This is, of course, only the beginning of a thought. My aim in this post is to explore some examples and see where they take me. I’m most interested in the different roles that coding and proceeding by algorithm play in my examples.

Before I turn to those examples, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about the kinds of machine music created by more recent electronic instruments (see Peter Manning’s Electronic and Computer Music for that sort of thing, if you’re curious). I’m talking specifically about music originally composed and played by human beings (in this case J.S. Bach and Chopin) on the usual orchestral and recital instruments that happens to have been either adapted for self-playing instruments (orchestrions, pianolas/player-pianos) or recreated algorithmically by machine-learning systems. I’m also not going to deal with music originally composed for self-playing instruments in this post, although there are quite a few of these compositions; I will almost certainly have to say something about them later as a contrast case, as they are an important part of the puzzle that I’m curious about. [1]

Bach to the Future

Johann Sebastian Bach (and he is hardly alone in this, as Baroque folk go) looks at first glance like a good example of a composer whose work is transparently algorithmic in nature. Indeed, this is exactly what drew Hadjeres & Pachet (2016) to Bach’s short chorales, which they selected for their machine-learning project, DeepBach, because a) there are enough of them (389) to provide a useful sample, and b) they are helpfully homogeneous:

All these short pieces (approximately one minute long) are written for a four-part chorus (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) using similar compositional principles: the composer takes a well-known (at that time) melody from a Lutheran hymn and harmonizes it i.e. he composes the three lower parts (alto, tenor and bass) to be heard while the soprano (the highest part) sings the hymn (Hadjeres & Pachet, 2016, p. 1).

The hard part, from the point of view of both composers/musicians and programmers trying to create a system that can generate a piece of music like this, “comes from the intricate interplay between harmony (notes sounding at the same time) and voice movements (how a single voice evolves through time),” and also requires some way to embody the unique features of each voice in the piece (Hadjeres & Pachet, 2016, p. 2). The short version: there’s a lot of math involved, worth exploring at another time. It’s…well, it’s not messy, but it is tricky, and the result they get appears to be a model that can create convincing and original Bach-like compositions difficult to differentiate from the style of ol’ Bach himself.

Here’s an example of DeepBach’s work:

As some of the commenters on the MIT post point out, it’s an interesting attempt, but DeepBach does make some serious mistakes (especially voice-leading errors) that a human composer familiar with the relevant music-theoretical practices would not have made. One thing DeepBach’s creators appear to have done reasonably well (voicing issues aside) is their handling of the Baroque use of the fermata to mark phrases — DeepBach’s composition appears to breathe fairly naturally in more or less appropriate style. Compare the DeepBach sample to some actual Bach (an example the authors offer in the paper — Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, BWV 434 [146]):

Interestingly, one of the problems that DeepBach’s programmers were trying to overcome was a matter of expert knowledge of harmonic practice and other compositional norms — earlier attempts at Bach generators seemed to them to run aground on the difficulties of generating the rule base (which would need to be pretty detailed) and handling the fact that the results just didn’t sound much like Bach even when they did follow the rules (Hadjeres & Pachet, 2016, p. 2). DeepBach, with a less restrictive rule base that required no expert knowledge, was nonetheless able to generate results that were original (they tested for plagiarism from the learning samples) and, when tested with listeners, seem to have sounded sufficiently Bach-like to be convincing (Hadjeres & Pachet 2016, p. 8-12).

I confess that I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. While the MIT post appears to suggest that DeepBach’s ability to “fool” listeners in the study’s sample is a promising and impressive development for the use of machine learning to analyze music, I’m not convinced that this is actually what the listening test shows. While there are Turing-test relevant reasons to be at little bit impressed here, it’s not clear that being unable to tell one rule-governed composition apart from another that more or less follows the same rules, in the absence of expert knowledge, really signifies anything other than that carefully following certain rules generates predictably similar results. I’m curious about whether the same sample group could consistently tell Bach apart from a human composer who tried to follow his style carefully. I don’t mean to reduce Bach to rules here, only to point out that revealing and following those rules doesn’t necessarily get us as far as we might like it to do.

Just the same, I think there’s another side of this worth thinking about: how do we evaluate algorithmic players, and how do we code for them?

Hupfeld vs. Rabin

Have a look at and a listen to this magnificent beast of a musical machine, The Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina:

The Violina (created by the Ludwig Hupfeld company (see also) in the early part of the 20th C.) is an orchestrion that includes a piano and three violins. The violins are played by using a rotating horsehair ring “bow” and some mechanical “fingers,” plus what is basically an whammy bar attachment on the tailpieces to create vibrato. It plays music on interchangeable paper rolls, in which the music is arranged and encoded by punching holes of various lengths in the paper. Automatic instruments of this kind often included additional tempo controls (beyond whatever changes were encoded in the music roll or cylinder), and some of them, like the later pianolas that used hand-played rolls and allowed a human musician to join the fun, could be “played” while playing in a way that allowed further personalization of the performance.

The main reason I mention the tempo controls here is that tempo changes are an obvious place to look for something like “style” in an instrument of this kind. Tempo changes, breaks, breaths, etc. can be used to tell the listener where a phrase ends, as well as creating dramatic effects for emphasis, for mood, etc. in the piece, often alongside changes in dynamics. In the video of the Violina above, while there’s not much variation in dynamics (they seem to have set the whole thing to “blare” and, well, damn the torpedoes…), whoever arranged and coded the Chopin roll seems to have tried to build in some style using controlled tempo changes. The effect is a bit strange, especially compared to the work of a human player in the kind of bel canto mode that the Chopin roll coder/arranger is trying to capture. Consider Michael Rabin’s performance of the same piece, for example:

As I listen to both performances, I find the Violina less pleasing and rather awkward, although it remains an impressive engineering achievement. The Violina can do tempo changes, and it can create vibrato using the whammy bar attachment although it is unconvincing when it does so. But why? Is this just a matter of Rabin being a “better” violinist than the Violina (inclusive of both its mechanical properties/technique and the way the roll was coded)? I’m not quite sure what that might mean. Is it an instrument quality issue? The Dutch workshop that restored the Violina in the video used recent European-built factory violins; Rabin played the “Kubelik” Guarneri del Gesu, now also known as the “Kubelik” or the “Rabin”, for a number of years, although I haven’t yet had time to find out whether or not that was the instrument he played for this particular recording. Is it a side effect of the properties of the circular “bow” and the limitations it imposes on play? Maybe, but I don’t think these concerns are especially helpful as explanatory factors.

In order to make sense of my impressions in this case, I need to be able to sort tone, technique, and tempo out here as separate dimensions, especially where the violin and piano parts interact. What I think requires the closest examination is the difference between measured, algorithmically generated tempo choices and the way in which live players make these moves together. There’s something odd about how the Violina attacks a note and makes the transition between one tempo and the next. Perhaps it’s too regular? Could a better roll coder/arranger solve this problem? Maybe, but I suspect that the need for a certain amount of mechanical regularity (bound by the paper roll system design itself) would confound the attempt. The kind of suspension in time that can happen in a live performance, even if the players are trying to keep a careful rhythm, is almost never perfectly regular — the players are responding to each other in that moment, in that performance, and while they may be really consistent about their choices (having practiced), those choices are not purely mechanical in nature. The difference in style between live player(s) and orchestrion might be easier to disguise in something like baroque phrase-marking fermata, but Chopin’s going for something quite different, and I suspect that a machine-learning system with different physical system limitations might not be able to capture it any better than the paper roll coder/arranger did.

What finally strikes me upon reflection is a possibility: could a better player make DeepBach’s efforts “sound more like Bach,” and if that were the case, what would it mean? Is the issue a matter of not having the right understanding how composition and performance are related? What would that “right” understanding look like?

  1. Stravinsky, for example, studied the possibilities of the pianola or player piano quite seriously, and adapted his own compositions for piano roll in addition to writing an etude specifically for the pianola. Also worth mentioning: other composers wrote experimental music specifically for the pianola and related mechanical instruments ( Paul Hindemith, among many others, in the early 1900s, and later Conlon Nancarrow from the 1940s on). At least some of the more recent composers inspired by Nancarrow specifically wrote their pianola material to be “unplayable” by human musicians.
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