Friday, October 19, 2012

Random Acts of Mindness

It's been said (right here in this post, to be precise) that "random" is literally the most oft misused word in the English language. Let's see what I can do to contribute further to the problem. If this lengthy blog post seems unappealing to you, why not spin the "MM's Multimedia Musing Machine" wheel over there in the right margin? It's just been updated with more than 50 new possible outcomes.


I'm going through one of my Shuffle phases on iTunes, partly because I only recently discovered that one can now automatically re-download all past purchases, which spurred me to realize there were literally days of music that had never made it to my laptop from iTunes, from Amazon, from eMusic, from ripped CDs. My digital music collection has always been split/shared awkwardly across two or three computers and an iPod. The iPod died last year and since then I’ve mainly just been using iTunes in class, often wondering why I couldn't find this or that – until now.

Once I'd gone to the trouble of collecting most of my digital music into one place, it seemed like a good idea to start shuffling through it to see what I'd been missing. A couple of points about that: 1) I've made a habit of excluding the following from shuffle lists: just about anything with short recitative tracks, such as operas, oratories, cantatas, etc. I just find 31 seconds of random recitative to be more annoying than enticing. So, the list skews pretty strongly towards the instrumental side. 2) I still have a yet bigger collection of music on an ancient medium known as the "compact disc." (Let’s not even talk about the 500 or so LP’s in my basement.) Although I'm sure I've forgotten about many potentially interesting CDs that I own, I think the bulk of that collection is bread-and-butter repertoire that I've known for a long time. But, the digital downloads tend to feature music I don't know as well - impulse buys from the likes of eMusic and Amazon inspired by thoughts like "I really should get to know more of [Composer X]'s music."

So, shuffling through myTunes is a great way to start realizing those oft-forgotten goals. I’m not sure how unusual I am in this respect, but I find I tend to listen more openly when music comes to me this way – unbidden, unexpected and seemingly destined to be heard. It's almost like being seduced. Almost. That’s quite irrational, but I’m not sure there’s much about listening to music that’s rational anyway. My experience is that if I consciously "put on" those new [Composer X] downloads, I'm likely to begin with all sorts of prejudices or even false hopes about what I'm about to hear and how I'm about to hear it. Whether the music is unexpectedly lovely or strange or disturbing, there's something about the "name that tune" context that makes me listen more curiously and less judgmentally. Maybe I have issues.

Nevertheless, I often find this the most pleasurable way to listen to music - kind of like listening to the radio, except there's no banter, the selections are stacked in my favor, and I can skip ahead at will. Perhaps it's the anxiety of choice that otherwise gets in the way. I don't mind admitting that I love watching Frasier re-runs many evenings to usher me off to sleep. Frasier is a great show at its best, but it's often not at its best, so I could easily go to Netflix and choose the best episodes each night, but I prefer just letting the Hallmark Channel (!) do the choosing. This really makes no sense; not only am I stuck with whatever episode happens to be on, but there are inevitably little cuts in syndicated showings, cuts needed to make room for all those commercials for Hallmark programs and Hallmark-oriented products that have no appeal. (I've probably seen at least 50 promos for Hallmark movies and have never watched one.) Nonetheless, when a truly great episode comes on, it always seems more special that it "just comes on" without me doing the choosing. Maybe I have issues.

My iTunes "Super Shuffle" playlist has 15+ days worth of music at the ready, and yet anyone who's ever dealt with shuffling knows how often the resulting playlist seems less than random. Here are a few recent tweets on the subject:
My iTunes Super Shuffle playlist has 4452 tracks, 411 from Haydn symphonies. Yet, I'm getting Haydn symphonies about 35% of time. Weird.
Well, my spooky iTunes Super Shuffle playlist just picked 4 Bach tunes in a row. Would be stranger if 4 Blochs in a row, but still...
OK, now iTunes Shuffle is really going hipster (after so much Haydn and Bach a few days ago): Boulez - Cage - Webern.
Yes, it always seems as if there's something intentional going on...except, when it doesn't:
I've been tweeting fun iTunes shufflings, but I can now tell you that mvt 5 of Bartok's 4th Quartet does NOT work following Siegfried Idyll.
...oh I see, iTunes shuffle; from Wagner to Bartok to Vivaldi, huh? Anyone who thinks all classical music is the same should walk this path.
My experiences updating Mr. Stravinsky's Random Accent Generator and the Multimedia Musing Machine have just confirmed how un-random random processes can seem. The Musing Machine now has more than 200 options, but I've seen the same result show up 3 times within about 10 chances. So, it stands to reason that I'll be getting Haydn 35% of the time and then not at all for hours, even though this seems unreasonable. Why should we expect randomness to be reasonable?

Shuffling also leads to all sorts of surprising encounters, of course. I blogged several years ago about realizing that Strauss's early and flashy Don Juan segues perfectly into his late and mellow Metamorphosen, a discovery brought to me by iTunes. Or, I once found that some Stravinsky cadenced perfectly into a Beatles song. This morning, while working on a syllabus, I heard something shuffle by that I instantly recognized as Bach/Stokowski, but Stokowski's romanticization was so complete I failed for almost a minute to realize that this:

is this:

even thought I teach the latter piece twice a year and love it. Not sure I would ever have selected that Stokowski track on my own, but I'm glad it was handed to me.

Followers of this blog will know that I love a good mashup, partly because there's always an element of randomness involved in smashing two separate entities together. This morning, while testing out the newest version of the Musing Machine, I stumbled on a marvelous synchronicity between an unknown song, brought to me via shuffling, and a pre-existing mashup that had started up unexpectedly. That's confusing, huh? So, iTunes had chosen a single-voice a cappella song from a collection of Shaker Songs that I never get around to listening to when the Musing Machine fired up this pairing of a Britten oboe piece with some random marimba piece. (That pairing first debuted in a music class where I asked two students to play their two pieces simultaneously.) So, if you're keeping score, we now have: solo Shaker song, solo Britten oboe, solo marimba, all joining together, for a moment at least, as if they belonged together:

...or maybe you disagree. But for me, that intersection doesn't seem at all random (especially the way the oboe seems to echo the singer). Pretty random, huh?

Anyway, if you have a taste for random, perhaps you've noticed that I keep mentioning my newly updated "Musing Machine" in this post. I continue to be proud of this distinctive feature, which escorts you to an MM multimedia creation of its choice; I don't know of another blog that has anything like it, and I'm not sure there's another blog that could have anything like it, although that's not necessarily a good thing.

Still, why not give it a spin or two?

NOTE: There are more than
200 possible outcomes.

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