Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Thru-Who? A curious tale of amateurs rendered harmonious by a genius

My third Arcade post.

In March of 2009 an Israeli musician and multimedia artist named Kutiman (a.k.a. Ophir Kutiel) uploaded seven videos to YouTube, calling the whole project “Thru-You". The videos were complex remixes of existing YouTube videos of people playing individual musical instruments. Kutiman layered together fragments of audio tracks from many videos to create virtual ensembles performing new songs. His own videos constantly cut among these sources so that listeners could see who was providing the backbeat, bass line, guitar riff, instrumental solos, vocals, and so forth.

The first video, “The Mother of All Funk Chords," racked up over a million YouTube views within a week of its release, thereby generating media coverage and attention from copyright reform advocates. Time later declared "Thru-You" one of the “50 Best Inventions of 2009”.

“The Mother of All Funk Chords” opens with an African-American man in a suit sitting behind a drum kit and playing a basic rhythm. As he plays, he asks, “Well, what can I do?” The video cuts to a white man wearing a backward baseball cap and holding a guitar; he seems to reply “You could play that 16th-note groove…” and a younger African-American man holding a bass in his lap cuts in with “Just straight,” playing a three-note bass riff. The screen splits to show four musicians in the four quadrants of the video, as though they were teleconferencing. (The first three musicians are joined by a conga player.) The guitar player says, “Go! You’ll be amazed.” The original drummer replies, “Okay!” and the four musicians begin to lay down a groove together, via Kutiman’s layering and remixing of their original videos. Before long the bass player suggests that there should be more than one guitar part, with someone playing chords and someone playing single notes. The guitarist says, “Okay, then let’s just pick the mother of all funk chords, let’s pick a ninth chord.” Four brass players replace the first four musicians; Kutiman builds up a chord from individual notes in their original videos and the song takes off.

Much of the media coverage of the “Thru-You” project celebrated it as an unintended virtual collaboration by "amateur musicians": Kutiman’s genius has made them more than the sum of their parts. For instance, indie-media advocate Timothy Karr wrote in the Huffington Post that Kutiman “mashed and mixed video clips of amateur YouTube musicians to create a near-flawless overture to the Twittering masses." The Time “50 Great Inventions” summary likewise stated that Kutiman drew on “footage posted on YouTube by amateur musicians...in the process creating an all-new art form that combines DJing, video montage, and found art." Brooklyn Vegan writer John Seroff rightly noted that Kutiman’s methods are in fact no different from those of countless other video remix artists; he also asserted, “What really makes Kutiman unique is his abhorrence of commercial recording; his samples hail from virtual unknowns and his work is distributed for free on the web."

In the “info” section for “The Mother of All Funk Chords,” Kutiman credits twenty-two source videos, only a small fraction of which could be described as “footage posted on YouTube by amateur musicians.” The twenty-one videos that were still available on YouTube in August 2010 can be categorized as followed:

* 10 professional or semi-professional music lesson videos, posted as feeders for lesson websites (funded by student payments, donations, or advertising)
* 5 amateur performances (most with a humor angle)
* 2 excerpts from professional music lesson videos (apparently reproduced without permission)
* 2 performances by professional or semi-professional musicians (people who are in bands, perform regularly, and included links to their band websites)
* 1 amateur-produced music lesson
* 1 video of a childrens’ cheer routine, promoting a missionary organization in the Philippines

Two-thirds of the musicians sampled in “The Mother of All Funk Chords” are professional music teachers and/or performers who uploaded the videos to drive traffic to other websites. One musician is quite well-known: the first person to appear in Kutiman’s video is Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, a well-known session drummer with a discography spanning four decades. (Another YouTube user apparently uploaded a clip from one of Purdie’s instructional videos, which are available for sale on Purdie’s website.) While other remixes from the “Thru-You” project do include a higher proportion of non-professionals, it is curious that so many commentators described the performers in “The Mother of All Funk Chords” as isolated amateurs who could only join a band through the intervention of a creative genius. In fact, most members of Kutiman’s virtual ensemble were already actively involved in various forms of virtual performance, web-based collaboration, and entrepreneurial self-promotion, mostly connected with web-based music lessons.

Why were these professional and semi-professional performers (and a few YouTube comedians) so often described as unjaded, uber-sincere amateur musicians whose natural joy served as Kutiman's source material? Kutiman himself certainly can't be faulted for failing to cite his sources. It appears that even people who are eager to celebrate the democratizing impact of social media are also sometimes hungry for a genius who can masterfully organize amateurs, rendering P2P chaos harmonious.

Friday, August 27, 2010

playing along

So I finally seem to have settled on a book title that appeals to my editor and the marketing department at Oxford University Press.

Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance

In honor of this milestone, I've changed my blog title to match. Now I just have to finish writing the book. It will include case studies on Grand Theft Auto, Guitar Hero/Rock Band, and amateur-to-amateur online pedagogy. A few key themes:

* play (obviously)
* practices that compel focused attention/immersion/flow
* practices that bridge virtual and visceral experience
* digital ethnography
* embodied knowledge (and how to transmit it using digital media)
* dispersed participation
* amateurism
* repetition
* creativity as a state of mind (rather than as something that necessarily produces stuff)
* transmission of tradition
* the experiential intersections of gameplay, music-making, and learning

Friday, July 9, 2010

Amateur-to-Amateur Music Lessons

My second post for Arcade...

Imagine that you’ve recently become a big fan of salsa or Cuban son. You decide you want to learn more about how the music works—maybe even take a few conga lessons yourself. On a whim, you do a YouTube search for “conga lessons”. Today, the top result is a lesson called “Poncho Sanchez- Fundimentals of Latin Music- Conga”, posted by Gordanius in 2007. It has attracted 469,226 views, which seems to lend it a bit of authority. You hit play, and Poncho Sanchez introduces himself and starts to explain the names of the different-sized conga drums in front of him.

While the video runs, you idly scroll down to the comment section. In the “Highest Rated Comments” section, a commenter seems to be defending Sanchez from a criticism that’s no longer onscreen:

Your Spanish is good enough for you to understand that this defense relies on the claim that no gringo can match the Latin touch, which is inborn in the blood of Latinos. (And if you’re me, you find this whole line of argument depressing.) Further down, another commenter criticizes Sanchez—first for pedagogical inefficiency (he could explain the same material in fewer words), but also for playing that lacks “sabor”; he’s fine technically, but he doesn’t SPEAK with the congas.

Another person recommends a different YouTube channel, and notes that these days students don’t have to rely on a single teacher’s example:

This seems like a good point, but you don’t feel qualified to compare different players’ techniques—you’re looking for beginner lessons. You back up to your search results page and click on the second video in the list, which is titled “Conga Lesson 1: Basic Tones- Nate Torres”. 68,158 views, not too shabby. Nate Torres introduces himself and promises that this video is the first in a series.

Both the teacher and the video production are far less professional than in the Poncho Sanchez example. It seems very likely that the Torres video was made for YouTube, whereas when you Google the title of the Sanchez video it looks like it’s probably an excerpt (unauthorized?) from an instructional DVD of the same name released in 2005. Sanchez is on stage or in a studio, with well-miked drums displayed from multiple camera angles. Nate Torres seems to be in his living room—or maybe more likely his parents’ living room, given his age and the visible d├ęcor. The lighting isn’t great and the sound reproduction is fuzzy. Torres fidgets with his hat and shifts in his seat; he has none of Sanchez’s gravitas. On the other hand, by 35 seconds into the video Torres is telling you exactly how to position your hand in order to get an open tone out of your drum. “What you’re going to do is have your fingers lined up just like this, close together, with your thumb out, so your thumb doesn’t get in the way.” He uses his own left hand to shape the position of his right hand, inviting you to do the same—a physical correction from an imagined teacher. He offers a visual cue for exactly where to strike the drum: “making sure that your knuckle line lines up with the rim of the drum”. Then he slowly demonstrates three strokes and looks right at the camera, seeming to ask, “Did you get it?”

When you scroll down to the comments, you see that Torres must be “prpapito3000”, the person who uploaded the video; he’s responding to comments and questions (though the last responses are from six months ago).

Both of these videos were first posted in 2007, an eternity ago in YouTube time. This no doubt partly accounts for their placement in the search rankings; they were among the earliest conga lessons uploaded to YouTube, and once they had attracted a decent number of views their view counts were positioned to snowball (among the limited audience entering a query for “conga lessons”, anyway). Neither video functions as a teaser for another online business or for private lessons with this teacher. While the Sanchez video appears to be excerpted from a commercially-available DVD, that DVD is not linked from the YouTube page or cited in detail (indeed, the title is even misspelled—probably a typo, but sometimes an indicator of deliberate evasion of copyright enforcement). Torres just seems like a friendly teenager who’s messing around with YouTube and imagining what he could contribute.

These YouTube videos and their associated comment threads offer an excellent example of amateur-to-amateur music pedagogy (how about A2A for short?). The first uploader, Gordanius, has posted a professional musician’s lesson as a public service; in the comment thread, viewers demonstrate their own expertise by offering criticism, defenses, and their own advice to learners. The second uploader, prpapito3000, is an amateur himself, but certainly knows enough to offer useful lessons to beginners; moreover, he’s willing to periodically interact with his viewers online, answering questions, offering encouragement, or brushing off typical YouTube slagging about his wardrobe with a format-idiomatic “lmao” (that’s “laughing my ass off”—and I’ve typed and deleted this several times now, wondering whether anyone who’s read this far would need an explanation). His youth and non-professionalism actually make him appealing; after all, if I’m watching this video I’m probably playing congas in my living room, too. And if I’m still just learning how to produce an open tone, do I really need to get a lesson from a venerable professional performer? It’s also quite likely that I’m only aspiring to be an amateur player myself, in which case maybe Nate Torres is a better role model for me than Poncho Sanchez. He’s certainly more accessible. Here’s a bit of the comment thread for one of his other videos:

I wonder what all this A2A pedagogy means for the future of music learning? I’m sure there are some people who would argue that Nate Torres shouldn’t be rubbing shoulders with Poncho Sanchez as a conga teacher. And after all, I’m a pro in this business myself; maybe I should feel threatened by the fact that a YouTube comment exchange can pretty much sum up a week’s discussion in my college course on Latino diaspora music (topic: is salsa Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Nuyorican?).

So far, though, I’m just happy to have help from both Sanchez and Torres in the classroom.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

pick up a real guitar: musica practica 2.0?

This summer I've agreed to write the occasional blog post for Arcade -- I'll be cross-posting here. My first post follows.

"Okay! As we continue our guitar journey, we need to talk about how you're going to be attacking the strings. And I'm going to recommend that you use a pick." David's tone is upbeat and encouraging, as always, and he seems to be looking right at me -- his ability to make eye contact with the camera is uncanny. Propped on his right thigh, his acoustic guitar looks like a natural extension of his body.

I have my (borrowed) guitar on my lap as well, and have set out a few picks on my desk. Though I've watched hundreds of guitarists perform over the years -- and I have David's example right in front of me on the computer screen -- I'm having a hard time figuring out how to even hold the instrument. In the previous lesson, "How to hold the guitar," David emphasized that I should hold it close to my body so it doesn't "dance around", and also that I shouldn't hunch or lean over the guitar. But these instructions seem somehow incompatible with my (female) anatomy. Nevertheless, I've moved on to "How to hold the pick."

I began to explore online guitar lessons as an extension of my research on Guitar Hero and Rock Band. As anyone who's paid attention to media coverage of these games already knows, Guitar Hero players are constantly being exhorted to "lrn2reeltar", so I thought I'd take up the challenge. A YouTube search led me to David Taub; he posts some lessons there as teasers for the extensive guitar curriculum at nextlevelguitar.com. I can't embed David's NLG lessons here because the ones I'm discussing are only available by subscription; as with traditional private instrumental lessons, my virtual guitar lessons cost money (although they are much, much cheaper than private lessons; I'm paying $75 for three months of unlimited access to the video curriculum). "How to hold the pick" is Lesson 11, and it's almost 11 minutes long.

Why would it take someone 11 minutes to explain how to hold a guitar pick? Here are my initial fieldnotes from Lesson 11:
Early on he really focused on the tactile nature of the pick -- especially the fact that it might be slippery, and therefore picks with raised letters might be an advantage at first. He asked the cameraman to zoom in on the pick and demonstrated subtle differences in the angle of the tip. He showed that you should hold the pick tight enough that you can't pull it out with your other hand, but not super-tight because it's important to stay "natural". This reminded me of two things -- how jewelry sales clerks explain how a ring should fit (you shouldn't be able to pull it right off), and those exercises where you close your eyes and feel/describe all the sensory qualities of a raisin (except there's no eating the pick at the end). By zooming in on the pick and talking about texture, slipperiness, tension of the grip, etc. David really encouraged a lot of physical awareness and sensitivity to subtle differences in picks or pick-related technique. I wonder if a face-to-face teacher would just physically correct the student instead, or hold his/her hand up to the student's hand.

My previous guitar-playing knowledge was derived entirely from Guitar Hero. Laugh if you will, but as I've been exploring in my research blog and a recent article, there really are some technical basics that cross over. (For instance, the distinct roles played by fretting hand and strumming hand -- when I first started playing Guitar Hero, positioning the fretting hand in advance of hitting the strum bar felt quite counterintuitive to this pianist/clarinetist.) However, since a Guitar Hero controller has no strings and the strum bar isn't detachable, the game didn't give me any advance training on holding a pick. As I followed David's directions and (in subsequent lessons) tried some vigorous strumming, it was surprisingly difficult to hang onto the thing. Paying attention to texture really did make a difference: the raised letters on one pick gave me crucial tactile feedback, both for judging the right amount of tension between my fingertips and for feeling when the pick was sliding around in my hand.

I can't say how or whether David's Lesson 11 was different from the way an in-person lesson might unfold, but I suspect that a typical private instructor wouldn't spend 11 minutes encouraging me to just explore what the pick felt like in my hand -- and if I were paying by the hour, I might feel cheated if s/he did. I'd certainly feel more anxious about having my pick go flying across the room, too. Having taken more online lessons now, I know that the total absence of performance anxiety is one major difference between this learning experience and the private piano and voice lessons of my teenage years: after all, I'm alone in my living room. Except that I'm also not alone, because at any moment I can click over to the NextLevelGuitar forum and seek advice and encouragement from other students, or send David a question, or do a YouTube search to see how other guitarists hold the instrument or the pick. And if I want an audience, I can post a video of my playing to the NextLevelGuitar "Audio/Video Showcase" -- "If you just started to learn to strum 2 weeks ago or applied something you learned from David's Intermediate advanced or a video song lesson we would love to see it. Any haters will be banned immediately in this section..."

1,894 posts in that section so far, and a wealth of crowd-sourced feedback. I could get to like this "real guitar" thing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

adventures in technomusicality

So, the end of the semester has finally arrived and I'm embarking on a year of research leave -- hallelujah! This is when I get to tie together the threads of my research on Grand Theft Auto, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and my new project about online music lessons (full refs here for my videogame work). The book doesn't have a set-in-stone title yet, but I've tossed around some ideas with my editor -- right now the working title is Technomusicality: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance.

I'm starting to keep track of media coverage about YouTube-based music lessons, and I've already interviewed some teachers and students at sites like Next Level Guitar and OnlineDrummer (as well as talking with a fiddle teacher who offers private lessons via video chat). Just this morning a friend tipped me off that this topic will be discussed today on WNYC's Soundcheck -- on the "Smackdown" segment, so that promises to be juicy!

I'd love to hear from anyone who'd like to share their thoughts about online music lessons -- please comment on this post. I'm excited to dig into this topic this summer (and to post here more frequently).