Saturday, February 28, 2015

Two amazing pieces of research

Writing for Scientific American, Jen Christiansen has solved the 35-year old mystery about the origins of the Joy Division "Unknown Pleasures" cover.  We know it depicts radio signals from a pulsar, and her story links to an interview with designer Peter Saville where he talks about the source for the image (an astronomy encyclopedia) and the mythology that has been built around the image.  Christiansen went even further and tracked down the source publication for the image and interviewed the then-Ph.D. student who actually made the plot. As you might have guessed, he had no idea that he'd inadvertently created the cover art for a legendary album.  Equal parts scientific and music history, this story goes far beyond a simple SciAm blog entry, it's one of the best pieces of music journalism you'll read this year.


I'm hardly an audiophile, but I've always been fascinated by the differences in sound quality and tone between different formats (vinyl vs CD, CD vs mp3, etc.).  It's no surprise that I was all over this essay by Ryan Maguire, a Ph.D. candidate at the Virginia Center for Computer Music (hat tip to RA's news feed).  Using Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" as source material, he experiments with the original and compressed files, but rather than focus on the sound quality of the mp3, he extracts the sounds that are discarded from the original during the compression process.  The detritus that is left behind consists of ghostly remnants that contain easily recognizable parts of the original song.  As he notes, you don't have to be an audiophile snob to hear the valuable sonic information that gets thrown away.  Most of Maguire's experiments are done with relatively low quality (128 kbps) files, because that's what the mp3's creators were using as their reference when they refined their algorithms.

The purpose of his work isn't to rail against the decline of listening standards.  Instead, he sees this work as a form of cultural criticism.  A sculptor who makes art out of garbage or recycled items might have similar motivations, creating their art in order to critique the wastefulness of modern western societies.  He even uses the "ghost recordings" as a basis for sound reconstruction, for example, by playing them back in a virtual "diner" and commenting on the new textures that emerge.  Alvin Lucier ("I Am Sitting In a Room") would be proud.


Sandra said...

How fitting!:

Barry said...

Ugh ... that might be the worst UP redesign I've ever seen ...