Sunday, May 23, 2010

Paranormal Activity

UPDATE: Looks like xtranormal went out of business and all user-created movies (except those uploaded to YouTube or other) are gone! Sorry. This post now makes much less sense. : (

A couple of times recently, I've run across these xtranormal movies, generated by online software that pretty much automatically converts text to awkward animations of humanoids (or othernoids) speaking and gesturing quasi-expressively. To say I love this sort of thing is a big understatement. In the case of the examples above and below, one might argue that part of my fascination lies in seeing/hearing these movies as "translations" of familiar texts, and we all know I'm a big fan of translations and transcriptions.

I also have been a big fan of synthesized speech, ever since I first discovered my otherwise horrible 1995 Mac Performa (my first real computer) could speak text. I used to like to entertain guests with this party trick, although I suspect I was mostly entertaining myself. If you've been following this blog for awhile, maybe you remember my Virtual Singers covering such classics as "Nessun dorma," "Hey, Jude," and "On Top of the World." I also once wrote (here & here) about an indie pop singer who, to me, sounds like a virtual singer. And, just a few weeks ago, I posted text2speech versions of a few of my #operaplots on Twitter (here & here), as well as someone else's #operaplot rap (here) and a full-scale Virtual Barry Manilow rendition of someone else's #operaplot (here). I'll wait while you sample all those irresistible goodies...

I think my fascination with virtual speech has a lot to do with an ongoing but mostly subconscious interest in the music of speech. I started thinking more consciously about this fascination in the past few months as I've started listening to podcasts of the This American Life radio show. (I'd never listened to the show much before because the one-hour radio documentary format doesn't really fit my lifestyle - but podcasts are perfect for commuting.) I could go on and on about ways in which I love This American Life and about ways in which it drives me crazy, but I'll save that for some other time.

For now, I'll just note that one of the first things to drive me crazy about TAL was the way in which so many of the hosts talk the same way - specifically, they tend to talk like Ira Glass, the founder and guiding voice. He has a distinctively quirky way of speaking that is sort of affectedly unaffected (or maybe unaffectedly affected) and the fact that others on his staff mimic his quirks can be grating. But, I had to admit to myself as I was noting this that I was listening to the podcasts eagerly - because I find them such compelling listening.

And here's the thing - I don't think the subject matter is always what drives the show. I think as much as anything, there's a truly musical quality to the way the shows are presented. Yes, actual music plays a big part in these talkfests, but the pacing and pitching of the speech is also quite well worked out - the fact that the various hosts use a lot of the same inflections and cadences allows for the same kind of stylistic consistency that music lovers learn to appreciate when hearing various works by the same composer. The one-hour shows always seem to fly by, and I think it's partly because they're music to my ears.

All of that is to say that I've started noticing speech patterns more and more, especially the way pitch and cadences are used, even among us supposedly unlyrical Americans. Having a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old walking around the house adds to this fascination, I suppose, as children are quite naturally sing-song in their delivery. So, when I listen to computer-generated voices, it's fascinating to hear what they get right and what doesn't work so well. Of course, a lot of the humor comes from what they don't get right. In the "Who's on First?" sketch above, the bit from 1:11 to 1:21 kills me every time because the Bud Abbott robot keeps saying "Who" on the same low pitch. Just about any human would naturally raise the pitch each time he gave the same answer in succession; the stubbornly monotone responses somehow make the straight man even funnier.

Here are a few other "transcriptions" I've particularly enjoyed. The last two (actually, the last four, including the two updates) are my own creations.

[UPDATE: Only after I'd created the Seinfeld re-enactment above did I discover that someone else had done that same dialogue (one of the more famous bits from the show, I suppose), although I think mine's a little better...]

UPDATE 2: One more from me...

[UPDATE 3: and another one from me...

Friday, May 14, 2010

140 * 2500 = 45,000

Looks like a week of intense grading is still ahead of me, but I do still find myself Twittering to keep myself sane as I read paper after paper after paper... As a matter of fact, I recently hit the 2500 post mark on Twitter. Perhaps Twitter is a fundamentally ephemeral medium, but I still like preserving things, at least as long as those things don't take up space in my basement. Twitter is set up in such a way that, even more than with blogs, old posts seem to disappear - they don't appear in Twitter searches after just a week or so and, as far as I can tell, the only way to view older ones is to open one's Twitter page and then continually click the "more" link at the bottom. (In other words, there's no easy way for me to go view my Twitter posts from June of 2009 except to click "more" again and again until I get there.)

So, I've made it a point to archive my "tweets" every now and then, and the 2500 mark seemed a good time to do that again. You can view them all in one page here. Of course, there are many bits of conversation that won't make much sense in retrospect, but all those "140 or fewer characters at a time" add up to about 45,000 words. It may take a little while for that page to load, but I think the "really long page" concept is greatly underappreciated on the web. I assume that long articles are often broken up across multiple pages so that sites can determine if readers are really clicking through to the end, but I'd always prefer to scroll and scroll. It's not like you're gonna run out of paper. This also makes it much easier to search an archive like what I've created. (As opposed to, say, the archive of #operaplot entries for 2010 which, sadly, are stretched across 12 pages - makes browsing that archive much less satisfying.)

If you should visit my Twitter archive, some of the fun terms to search (Ctrl-F on PC) would be: operaplot, composerfilms, palindrome, tomswifty, musicpickuplines, operacrostic, operagram, and, most fun of all, viola. Also, it you've never used Twitter, browsing the archive (and following some of the "in reply to" links) might be a useful way to get some idea of how it works. Though Twitter is still often derided as being nothing but obsession with minutiae, I think all of this really adds up to something.

Finally, here's a Wordle that I created from all of my Twittered text to date. I think it just, like, really doesn't make me look all that articulate, but the "just think like operaplot" and ''Thanks viola" groupings are nice:

Click the image to enlarge.

Wordle created at

Previous MMmusing Wordles

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Operaplot After-thoughts

The good news: All my #operaplot entries from this year will be eligible for re-entry next year! As for the bad news, well, I didn't really expect it was likely I'd emerge from the 900+ entries, so I wasn't too startled not to find myself on the list of winners for 2010. I am happy with my output, and as with last year, the most satisfying part of the whole experience is reading through the entries. I'd been informally keeping a short list of my favorites from the year (though I've hardly read through them all carefully as poor Jonas Kaufmann must've had to do), and was happy to see that two of my favorites (the Eugene Onegin and the Andrea Chénier) were among the five winners.

Here are others of my favorites from this year, although I'm sure I'm missing some that are equally deserving. (My 2009 favorites, many of which returned this year, may be found here.)

[NOTE: You can ID all the operas below by clicking on the plots. Clicking on the plotter names takes you to their original tweets.]

(I wonder if the long GILDAAA distracted people from the brilliance of the opening, which could be a perfect tagline for the opera - at least, perfect if the opera were a comedy. Perfectly executed plays on "hunch" and especially "daughter in the sack"; in far less than 140 characters, it actually summarizes the gist of the plot remarkably well. My favorite of 2010.)
(OK, this summarizes very little, but it makes me laugh every time I see or say it. It's especially satisfying because the opera itself is so long. I'm proud to say that I helped midwife this one into the competition; it arose from a discussion among two plotters, one of whom mentioned how much this opera reminds him of reality shows such as "America's Got Talent." The other responded with the line above, and I suggested that's all that was needed.)
(I don't even understand parts of this one, but it stands out for sheer kookiness, and it somehow fits Alberich perfectly. Was even converted into a LOLcat.)
(Maybe the best of the song parodies. Easy to hear Barry Manilow crooning this.)

(Hey, look at that; two rhyming Britten plots about creepy characters named Peter, back to back. Both very elegantly and efficiently done.)
(I actually found myself working at one point on something about the coincidence of Mimi stopping by - never got anywhere with it, but this Bogart homage captures it perfectly.)
(Note that the two above are not for the same opera. The "there's more to me than a homicidal clown" line is killer. I may need that for a bumpersticker.)
(nbrockmann has probably turned out more great operaplots than anyone, often featuring clever social commentary; too bad she didn't have enough characters to add "decadent Wagnerian chromaticism" to that grim list.)
(I like the bonus meta-layer provided here by using this operaplot to comment on the self-awareness of the plot.)
(Of course, I like the rhyming ones, of which there were many entered, but meter too often ends up suffering. This one flows along perfectly and integrates the required hashtag most cleverly.)
(It's likely I wouldn't have had the skillz to imagine how this should sound on my own, but fortunately its author supplied the breakout hit of Operaplot 2010: Listen here.)
Finally, I'd like to second Yvonne Frindle's suggestion that this one, which originally debuted in 2009, is probably the best #operaplot ever:

(It manages to do so many things. It reads first a bit like a scientific abstract, which turns out to be a lovely way of capturing the culture clash at the center of this story; it's clever and humorous; but, best of all, unlike just about any of the other operaplots I've seen, it genuinely captures the poignancy of the story. It's pretty easy to make fun of opera in all its silliness and excess, but this one actually reminds us that we care about the characters. It's actually sad.)
Remember, you can view all of my operaplots (from 2009 and 2010) here. I like some of them as well...

[UPDATE (5/9] I meant to include this one as well. It was on my list, but I forgot I to list it here:]

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Trailer Mashups

[NOTE: I'm hoping I can pull in some of the tractor pull crowd with the catchy post title.]

Creating my little "Twitter Plot" Magic Flute trailer (featuring music not by Mozart) got me thinking about the humorous idea that Mozart's music, while wonderful, might not work so ideally in the movie trailer context.* Actually, it could and should, but this trailer for Kenneth Branagh's recent film version of The Magic Flute uses the music rather generically and unimaginatively.

Which made me think, if you're gonna use trailer music generically and unimaginatively, why not bring in the can't-miss big guns? And so, promising myself that I'd make very little effort other than just slapping the new soundtracks on and being sure the musical climax hits at the right time, I threw together two new versions of the Flute trailer. Here's my first effort, using the ubiquitous opening chorus from Orff's Carmina burana. It doesn't always synch up perfectly, but it does generate terrific momentum as the trailer goes along.

Still, I sensed that Orff's music might be a bit too grim for a relatively light-hearted story, and since Branagh also clearly plays up the heartwarming and uplifting elements of the plot, I realized that this was a job not for Orff and not for Mozart, but for...Randy Edelman. In my experience, this music of his (which I only recently learned was his theme from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) is THE quintessential trailer soundtrack. If my Wikipedia-based research is correct, it's been used in trailers for the likes of Forrest Gump and The Truman Show, and I'd already used a shorter version in my Twitter trailer (see previous post). Here's the Mozart/Branagh/Edelman outcome:

The music's not really my cup of tea, but it's so familiar in this context that it seems almost to guarantee a good time at the movies. I know I've heard it many, many times, though I only learned its identity after seeing it used brilliantly (at the 1:45 mark) in this wonderful "trailer for every Academy Award winning movie ever." It's also amazing to me how well it intersects with so many little moments in the Magic Flute scenes that fly by - again, the only connection that was planned was the matching of the musical climax with the movie title; everything else just kind of happens. This music is made to trail. If you're a regular reader of this blog, hopefully you'll be reminded of the kinds of meaningful random connections that can so easily happen when two unconnected entities are tossed together.

[UPDATE: If you don't feel like watching the whole thing, check out the last trailer mashup above at around the 0:48 mark. The score transition at 0:58 seems like it was made for what's happening with the visual clips. I wish I could take credit, but this was a total coincidence.]

I think this experiment may also have been influenced by this odd little video documenting the Boston Symphony Orchestra's recent fashion design contest,"Project Tchaikovsky." Though the contest was supposed to be about gowns that were inspired by the music of Tchaikovsky, the video featured on the BSO's own website uses the standard sort of Euro-beat music one might expect in any fashion show. It seems like a missed opportunity to try to make some real connections between these designs and the music, but maybe they also feared that, like Mozart, Tchaikovsky's not so great in the short-format background context.

(*By the way, this is a bit off-point, but one of the odder things I've ever heard done with Mozart's music is the a cappella version of a gorgeous woodwind Adagio that occurs in this trailer for the Keats bio-pic Bright Star.)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Operaplot: The Movie!

Well, the midnight deadline has passed and all the 900+ (!) operaplot entries are in - of which I contributed 25: 12 newly created ones, and 13 reprised from last year. All of my new entries are contained in my most recent post, but if you'd like to read even more about them, I've added them all to my "operaplots explained" page from last year. It's probably a bad sign that all of the descriptions are longer than the operaplot entries themselves, but I suppose part of the point of explaining them is that the Twitter-imposed limit makes some of the plots rather cryptic. So, if some or all of my plots make no sense to you, take a look here.

One more bit of business as we await the announcement of winners, which will probably take a few days. I ended up designing one of my plots to read like the voice-over for a movie trailer. It's not that great (which is authentic, since those voice-overs are usually riddled with cliché), but I started thinking about how it might actually work in a real trailer, and so now there's this:

I should add that this is hardly the best multimedia version of an operaplot. For that, check out what this guy did.