Bowie

Here’s a playlist of good David Bowie songs that I had never heard until after he died last week.

Spotify playlist
YouTube links:
Dead Against It (1993)
Up The Hill Backwards (1980)
Move On (1979)
Dancing With The Big Boys (1984) (with Iggy Pop)
I Would Be Your Slave (2002)
Girl Loves Me (2016)
You’ve Been Around [Dangers 12″] (1993) (Jack Dangers remix)
Nite Flights (1993) (Scott Walker cover)
No Control (1995)
Bring Me The Disco King (2003)
I’m Deranged (1995)
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (2002)

Most of these came out after the peak of his popularity, but they aren’t obscure at all — I was just never a fan.

The first Bowie songs I remember hearing on the radio were Modern Love and Let’s Dance, both released in 1983 when I was eleven. I thought those two were fine, though they weren’t the sort of thing I liked to think I was into at the time. (I had a big Motörhead war-pig patch on my little denim jacket. Lemmy’s death was also the end of an era.)

A few years later, a cousin introduced me to some of the Spiders from Mars period songs like Rebel Rebel and Suffragette City. I was a bit puzzled because I thought I knew Bowie as a smooth, modern 80s-sounding chap. But I didn’t get the appeal either: too much like everything else from the early 70s. Rebel Rebel even sounded like the Stones, which was definitely my dad’s music.

Back in the real timeline of the 80s, Bowie was releasing Never Let Me Down, an album seen everywhere (one of several awful record covers) but seldom played, then launching the drearily adult Tin Machine.

His next album, Black Tie White Noise, didn’t come out until 1993, when I was briefly in Berlin as a student and mostly listening to industrial music and obscure things I read about in Usenet groups. If I had been aware that David Bowie had an album out, I would certainly have ignored it. By the time of 1997’s Earthling, a jungle-influenced album released a whole two years after peak jungle with a dreadful Cool Britannia cover, it felt socially impossible to admit to liking a Bowie song ever again. And that was pretty much the end of that.

There’s been a David Bowie album, collaboration, tour, or retrospective for almost every year of my life, and I’ve never taken more than a passing interest in any of them.

I was taken by surprise, then, by how emotional I felt about his death.

***

What did eventually make me notice David Bowie as a figure was the connection with Iggy Pop. I think Iggy is brilliant, and I’d been a bit of a fan for a while before I eventually twigged what it was that his most interesting stuff had in common. That made me aware of the famously dramatic and productive spell for those two in Berlin the late 70s (the only albums of Bowie’s that I ever actually bought are from this period) and also an opening to a bit of a web of interesting collaborations and influences.

(Going back during the past week and filling in a lot of the songs of Bowie’s that I’ve missed during the last few decades, it’s been particularly fun to hear Iggy Pop numbers, er, pop up all over the place. China Girl — always an Iggy song to me — is well known, but there are at least three other albums that recycle songs previously recorded by him, including a straight cover of the flop lead single from Iggy’s most foolish album. A sustained friendship.)

***

So something of the emotion for me has to do with all that Berlin stuff. There are two aspects to that. One is the grubbily romantic idea of “pressure-cooker” West Berlin, seen from a distance as a place of hideouts, drugs, spying, longing, separation, and any other melodrama that “we” could project onto it. I’m sure this version of the city was overstated for lyrical purposes, but it probably did exist to a degree. The Berlin that fascinated and frightened me in 1993 was already a very different city, and both versions are hardly visible in today’s shiny metropolis.

The other aspect is the notion that moving to a different town in a different country could give you a new life and make your past disappear, even for someone already so celebrated — that it could really be so simple. What makes that idea available here is that Bowie didn’t just go, but then produced such different work after going that it really could appear as if his past had not gone with him.

This impression of self-effacement alongside all the self-promotion, the ability to erase the past, is a very attractive one for a pop star, and it fits also with the amount of collaborative work Bowie did. From some of the videos you can imagine that he was never happier than when playing keyboards or doing tour production for Iggy, singing backing vocals in a one-off with Pink Floyd, or playing second fiddle to Freddie Mercury or Mick Jagger.

Performance Practice as Unanticipated Pit

Last Tuesday afternoon I went to the weekly meeting of my research group.

(But this isn’t a post about work.)

2013-06-04-294_1The weekly meetings have a rotating series of themes: this week’s was “Music Performance and Expression”. Accordingly, the first part of this meeting was a bit of a concert. To open the subject, Elaine Chew (piano) and Kat Agres (cello) played part of Brahms’ first cello sonata and talked about how players coordinate with one another.

As a lapsed cellist, though never of this standard, I found it surprisingly difficult to listen to. I was surprised by how surprisingly difficult I found it. I thought about leaving, and then I decided to put on a nice plain face.

The music itself is troubling, but I don’t think that’s all of it. I listen to a bit of cello music and I know this sonata moderately well. I don’t think I have any problem with something that is only a cello performance, no matter what the music.

It’s the analytical part I have trouble with. The closer the subject gets to analysis of how it is done, the more it raises difficult questions in me. I still work in a music-related field all day. Why did I stop playing any instruments? I used to enjoy ensemble performance. Should I be turning back toward it, or is this kind of sentimental response in me a hint that it was better to let it drift away?

Is music recommendation difficult?

My research department works on programming computers to analyse music.

In this field, researchers like to have some idea of whether a problem is naturally easy or difficult for humans.

For example, tapping along with the beat of a musical recording is usually easy, and it’s fairly instinctive—you don’t need much training to do it.

Identifying the instrument that is playing a solo section takes some context. (You need to learn what the instruments sound like.) But we seem well-equipped to do it once we’ve heard the possible instruments a few times.

Naming the key of a piece while listening to it is hard, or impossible, without training, but some listeners can do it easily when practised.

Tasks that a computer scientist might think of as “search problems”, such as identifying performances that are actually the same while disregarding background noise and other interference, tend to be difficult for humans no matter how much experience they have.

Ground truth

It matters to a researcher whether the problem they’re studying is easy or difficult for humans.  They need to be able to judge how successful their methods are, and to do that they need to have something to compare them with.  If a problem is straightforward for humans, then there’s no problem—they can just see how closely their results match those from normal people.

But if it’s a problem that humans find difficult too, that won’t work. Being as good as a human isn’t such a great result if you’re trying to do something humans are no good at.

Researchers use the term “ground truth” to refer to something they can evaluate their work against. The idea, of course, is that the ground truth is known to be true, and computer methods are supposed to approach it more or less closely depending on how good they are. (The term comes from satellite image sensing, where the ground truth is literally the set of objects on the ground that the satellite is trying to detect.)

Music recommendation

Can there be a human “ground truth” for music recommendation?

When it comes to suggesting music that a listener might like, based on the music they’ve apparently enjoyed in the past—should computers be trying to approach “human” reliability? How else should we decide whether a recommendation method is successful or not?

What do you think?

How good are you at recommending music to the people you know best?

Can a human recommend music to another human better than a computer ever could? Under what circumstances? What does “better” mean anyway?

Or should a computer be able to do better than a human? Why?

(I’m not looking for academically rigorous replies—I’m just trying to get more of an idea about the fuzzy human and emotional factors that research methods would have to contend with in practice.)