Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Autotune Rant Reconsidered

OK, I've calmed down. A little.

A few days ago I ranted about the tasteless, obvious overuse of autotune on Emma Watson's singing voice in Disney's new "Beauty and the Beast" film. I'm quite certain that pitch correction was used for the other singers too, but it was most gratuitously used with Ms. Watson's songs.

First of all, I really enjoyed the movie. A lot. I vehemently deny that I got teary-eyed at the end, y'know, cause, uhhhh, well, I'm a guy and we deny those sorts of things.

But this got me thinking: Why did the truly grotesque amount of pitch correction really bother me quite so much?

I'm no scholar of the movie musical genre, but I do love 'em. In the grand days of the technicolor musicals, MGM did a remarkable job balancing the three pillars of acting, dancing and singing for many years. There were certainly triple-threat stars who had great success doing all three in Hollywood films: Earlier it was Fred Astaire, then came Gene Kelly and Ann Miller. If I were to rank each of them on these three skills, their most notable strength was as dancers, but they were very good actors, too. Perhaps lastly they were singers. Don't get me wrong, they were fine, unique, lovely singers, but one cannot fairly compare their singing skills to the all-time greats (ok, well, Ann Miller was dynamite).

The all-time great singing stars such as Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra could indeed act, so Hollywood created roles for them where they could fulfil both onscreen acting and singing duties.

But when a prominent actor's singing was deemed "inadequate," Hollwood would overdub the musical selections with a professional singer. Vocalist Marni Nixon overdubbed Maria's songs in West Side Story so the audience was watching Natalie Wood lip-sync along. Ms. Nixon did quite a bit of this work, replacing the voices of other stars like Audrey Hepburn and Deborah Kerr in films. Hollywood's inclination to keep beautiful-with-less-than-professional-quality-singing starlets onscreen was the entire plot of the musical "Singin' In the Rain."

I suppose it should come as no surprise that when digital audio processing came along, it would not be too long before Hollywood found that it had yet one more way of "correcting" the perceived shortcomings in their stars' singing.

I get that movies serve as escapist fantasies, so I would understand that for the end product, producers want their stars to sound as good as they can be. Musicians practice long hours for many years to be as good as can be. The problem with abusing autotune is that human beings are flawed, imperfect creatures and our music reflects those flaws. Our music is not perfect. It was never perfect, and never will be perfect. To sound "as good as one can be" is a much different ideal than "as perfect a sound as can ever be."

Perhaps I should explain what I mean by all that. I think a good place to start is with the blues, the form of musical expression that originated within rural black culture that ultimately inspired Rock and Roll, jazz, and much of pop music as well (Of course, the word "inspired" is perhaps not the best term. Early rock 'n' rollers stole the blues outright, but that whole area is for a different discussion). The beauty, soul and humor of the blues comes from their words of course, but also from the performer's ability to play with pitch: bending the notes, slightly lower here, a bit higher there. Great blues artists find ways to vibrate, gliss, scoop and fall from pitches with such variety that each and every blues musician is completely unique. Authentic blues sounds "out of tune" to the novice listener because the pitches often fall in the cracks between the notes of an even-tempered instrument like the piano. These imperfections of pitch are not accidents; they are an integral part of the musical expression. The great conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein does a masterful job teaching this in his 1956 album "What Is Jazz?" (Do click the link and listen if you've never heard it before; I still use this every semester in my Jazz Theory classes to teach the concept to my students.)

Why is this "imperfection" of pitch so important? Because notes themselves carry inherent emotions, such as the difference between major and minor chords. Clearly, minor is sad, major is happy. Quiz any five-year-old with these two chords and they will confirm the difference.

Listen to the following classic example of Billie Holiday singing the blues "Fine and Mellow" from a 1956 TV recording. Pay particular attention to the word "I've" in her line "He's the lowest man that I've ever seen", which you can hear at the 1:14 minute mark in this video:

So, music students, let me ask you: Which note is Billie singing on the word "I've" -- is it the major 3rd or the minor 3rd? Is it the happy or the sad one?

Back it up and listen to it again. And again. Well, which is it?

Of course it's neither. It's both. Her dramatic scoop up from minor to major is broad and lavish. It traverses through the range of sad to happy and every vulnerable, confused, unsure, beautiful feeling between. With her bluesy bending of pitch, she is literally toying with us, the listeners, and with our emotions. At this moment, she is in complete control. It's heartbreaking and joyous and tragic and rapturous. But most of all it is Billie, with all her humanity nakedly on display, warts and all. She was not great jazz singer because she was a great singer; her voice was coarse and her tessitura limited. She was great because her singing was so personal, visceral, and evocative, and above all else, so clearly Billie.

Autotuning Billie Holiday would have castrated her, gutting all her beauty and ugliness, which would have killed the very rawness about her that ultimately made her music so rare. If producers had access to autotune in that era, we would never have known Billie, or such unique individuals as Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat Cole, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Joan Jett, Bruce Springsteen, or for that matter any and every musical artist we love for their uniqueness and individuality prior to the year 1998. I wonder who are we missing out meeting now.

So, who is Emma Watson? She is an wonderful young actress who became famous her role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter film series. Recently, she has been spending her fame to speak out for the rights of women everywhere, including a courageous speech at the U.N. I loved that her voice wobbled a bit. She was nervous. Well, of course she was nervous. Who wouldn't be? She's a human being with all the fragility of ego and self doubt we all have. But, she went there and did it. I say bravo.

When I saw the trailer for the updated version of "Beauty and the Beast" and learned that Ms. Watson was cast as Belle, my first reaction was that she seemed a wonderful choice. Belle has an independent streak, so Ms. Watson seemed right for the character. To me, just some random movie lover, Ms. Watson comes across as young yet wise, strong yet frail, smart yet modest. Interesting -- on some level, this is not unlike how I think of Billie Holiday.

I was excited I would get to hear her singing voice and discover if, or how, her singing conveys these qualities. Or alternately, perhaps hearing her sing might change my uninformed opinion -- maybe she would convey a different personality than I was expecting. Maybe she would carry more raw power and energy than I thought possible for her. I also read that Ms. Watson was involved in designing the clothing, insisting on not wearing a corset which would have impeded her movement. Once again, I say bravo. Corsets force fit women into clothes that are impossibly thin, so on some level she must have felt that it was important for her character to appear human.

So the moment I heard the first inhuman, perfectly even-tempered, completely non-vibrating computer-generated pitches of her first entrance, I was profoundly saddened and disappointed. It was clear I was not going to get the chance to know her musically at all.

To my knowledge, Emma Watson is not a musician. I never wanted her to sound "amazing" or "perfect" and I wouldn't expect her to be an expert in the subtlety and nuance of the blues. But I feel we had a unique opportunity to get to know her through her music, and Disney robbed us of that chance by insisting that she sound perfect.

I just wanted her to sound human.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

London Blog #8.1: Viva l'Italia part 2

When I last left off, we were about to take the train to Florence. Before this trip, I had previous associations about Venice (y'know, canals and all that), but I knew almost nothing about Florence. This would be an interesting exploration!

Buying the Eurail pass allowed us to simply hop on the train in Venice and head to Florence. It wasn't high speed or first class, but worked just fine. We had an hour stopover in Bologna around lunchtime, so of course it made sense to have bologna in Bologna.

Bologna in Bologna
From the Florence Central station we walked to our Airbnb. It was a bit longer of a walk than we might have liked with our bags in tow (and Google Maps seemed a little confused about the actual location) but we eventually found our way there and met our host Francesca. The location was beautiful, right in the square at La SS. Annunziata di Firenze, as 1200s-era church. It was a little unbelievable that it was now an Airbnb, but it had been redone quite nicely, maintaining some presumably original stone features, but modernized and comfortable. 

The view of our Airbnb piazza then, and now.
The view from our door
Our first night, we ventured out for a walk and some dinner. It was rainy, but we were able to enjoy some open-air sculpture gardens and piazzas. Francesca had given us restaurant recommendations for dinner, so we headed in that direction. We walked across the iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge, where Max enjoyed the thousands of padlocks affixed there. He said "I'll bet there are a million keys in the water."

It turned out the recommended pizza place was closed, and our legs were getting pretty tired by this time, so we were thankful to find a simple yet appealing looking restaurant for dinner.  Max was quite happy when their answer to "Do you have bread and cheese" was "Of course!" Well, so was I.

The rainstorm got really intense after dinner. Our requisite search for gelato was complicated even further by a loud thunderclap that took out power for a few minutes. But like a beacon, a gelato place called Venchi had safety lights. When the power came back on, we saw it had a beautiful flowing chocolate sign behind the counter. 

I wish I had started shooting the movie right as the power came back on, because it quite dramatic: while the power was off and no chocolate was flowing, the backdrop was white (plastic, maybe?) then we watched the chocolate "bleed down" slowly turning it from white to black. Very cool.

The next morning started with coffee and pastries at a rooftop cafe across the piazza from our Airbnb, with a beautiful view. Yes, for those readers who don't yet know, Max does really love coffee. 

We started our touring at the Florence Cathedral. The duomo, dome, has a ridiculously beautiful painted ceiling. Climbing the duomo is a requirement, but it was closed for visitors while they checked it for damage from the previous evening's storm. But we'd climb it soon enough...

The painting on the duomo

While we didn't climb the duomo this day, we did climb the 411 steps of the bell tower. It is almost as tall, and has just as fantastic a view from the top. 

After we descended the bell tower (almost, but not quite, as taxing as climbing it, leading to some griping from the 10-year old contingent) we walked over to the pizza place Francesca recommended the previous day. This time, we did get pizza. Max wasn't quite used to the brick oven style pizza, but Catherine and I really loved it.

We decided that Max had earned some iPad downtime, so I walked him back to the Airbnb while Catherine started checking out the Pitti Palace art museum, and I joined her afterwards. The Pitti Palace is huge, with quite an impressive collection. The rooms themselves are fascinating, many with art completely covering the walls and ceiling, so it's almost impossible to take it all in.

I also enjoyed this instrument, called an orchestrion. I'd never heard of it before!

The next day, we did climb the big duomo. Max was clearly starting to get tired of the large-structure climbing thing, but this one was really amazing. On the way up, we got to see the painted ceiling up close, and some of the stairwells were crazily shaped because we were going up the dome at strange angles. Once again, the view from the top was spectacular.

After the 2nd big climb in two days, we decided to head back to the house for simple salad, bread and cheese lunch. The piazza in front was buzzing with activity, because it was the site of a large International Women's Day event.

We tried to go see Michelango's David that afternoon, but the museum closed early because of a local transit strike. So, we let Max stay at the house to relax while we went exploring further, ending up at the famous Uffizi Gallery which has several Da Vinci painting, in a section simply called "Leonardo."

Hey, this looks familiar! We were just back there in Venice a few days ago!
That night we went out for dinner, to a nearby restaurant with a really nice waiter who even brought Max some extra dessert -- a thin, flat Italian cookie.

We did eventually get to the Galleria dell'Accademia to see Michelangelo's David, the next morning, just before we left Florence.

After that, we hurried over to the station to catch a train to our next destination... Roma!

More about that part of our adventure soon-


Friday, March 17, 2017

London Life #8: Viva l'Italia!

It's been a few weeks since I last checked in with the blog, but that's mostly because we spent the ICLC spring break in Italy. This was totally new for me; not only had I never been to Italy before, I'd never even been to the European continent. This would be a week of many firsts.

Preceding our trip, we bought a Eurail pass with the intention of improvising most of the specifics. With only a few exceptions, the spontaneous method worked well, but more on that in future posts. The only other planning we did before the trip was to buy airplane tickets for Venice and a few nights of hotel there. When we spied this Norwegian Air plane from the walkway in Gatwick, we thought it was a good sign for our trip. Fans of comedic music will surely know his face.

We flew into Venice and navigated to the city by bus and vaporetto (the network of boats all around Venice). We bought 3-day passes so we could hop on the vaporetto whenever we wanted. We were surprised by how narrow the stone streets were -- the hotels directions said to take the 2nd left after getting off the boat, but we hadn't even started counting yet because the streets looked like alleyways. But ultimately, we found that our hotel was perfectly located right near the beautiful and historic Rialto bridge.


Even though we arrived somewhat late in the evening, we had time to go out for a nice pasta dinner and a stroll over the bridge. Max has never been a tomato sauce-crazed kid, but even he loved their spaghetti pomodoro. And Catherine and I both enjoyed the pesto.

We all very much enjoyed the hotel breakfast as we started our first full Venetian day -- Croissants and Nutella! The coffee was quite good, too. This was a very different level of morningtime experience from a typical American hotel.

After going a little too crazy with Nutella and red "blood" orange juice, we walked over to the Piazza San Marco and headed into Basilica di San Marco. None of us have spent much time in historic churches, so the sheer size of it was overwhelming right away. But soon, the amount of gold mosaics and ornate tile work took over their proper "mind blowing" duties. 

After checking out the inside of the church, we went upstairs and outside onto the observation deck where we enjoyed the grand view of the piazza.

The observation deck also gives a great view of the very fun automated bells at the adjacent Torre dell'Orologio.

San Marco also has a wonderful museum. If I had paid better attention during my music history classes, I could probably describe for you how this music would be performed. But since not, I mostly just enjoyed how much time and care went into preparing this music book we saw there in this book at the museum.

After the church visit, we all needed lunch and a pick-me-up, so of course, we stopped for gelato.

This day, our first in Italy, was not particularly beautiful weather-wise. We took the vaporetto to Lido island and walked over to the beach on the far side. I suppose this was not inherently a bad idea, except we realized that if we wanted a beach vacation, Venice in early March was not quite the right timing. But we could see how this beach would be quite lovely (and crowded) in the summertime when it wasn't so rainy, windy and cold.

For our mid-afternoon snack, Max and I got Nutella crepes, hot off the griddle. Did she really even need to ask if we wanted powdered sugar on them?


Max's quote of the day comes from dinner, when he asked "Why are there three chopsticks?" Once he realized they were breadsticks, he was happy there were actually more than three in the bag.

The next day started with plenty more Nutella. We started our exploration by taking the vaporetto over to the Gallerie dell'Accademia museum, where we all recognized the front of the church in this painting. Hey, we were just there!

We walked over to the Punta della Dogana, where we got great views of the piazza del San Marco, the spot we had just explored the previous day.

We went back to the piazza and explored the amazing Doge's Palace. The palace has amazing artwork and incredibly ornate ceilings. As our legs got tired, we found it was quite challenging to take it all in. But we took lots of pictures to try to later remember the feeling of being there.

Got the prisoner's view from the Bridge of Sighs. Sigh.

Because it was sunnier, we got some nicer photos from the vaporetto. It was fun to realize that, as obvious as it may seem in retrospect, Venice uses boats to deliver shipments around town instead of trucks. Well, of course they do!

As beautiful as Venice was, we wanted to explore more of Italy. So we booked an Airbnb in Florence, headed over to the train station and hopped aboard. 

My next installment will tell of the next days in Florence. 

Arrivederci, Venezia!