Monday, October 08, 2012

Long pause...

... in my blog writing activity. Or should I write "passivity"? I have not written anything in this blog a long while, not because of lack of topics, themes, or events, but just because I did not have the time nor the incentive.

Many things have happened in the past few months since May 2012. My Facebook friends have been well aware about all my activities, and I find using Facebook for updating everybody about what is happening very intuitive and casual. Posting pictures and "checking in" to places tells a story in itself, without many words. And brief status updates leave a trail of small thoughts, connecting places and events. In comparison, writing a blog seems almost old-fashioned. One has to collect the thoughts to write something meaningful. And I appear simply not having the time for this.

Nevertheless, here a brief update: At LeedsMet, the summer semester ended, I wrote a new project proposal together with my colleagues, and actually won the proof-of-concept. At the beginning of August I attended the ISMAR program committee meeting, where we selected the papers for the upcoming ISMAR conference. I had never before been in Atlanta, so this was also a nice new place to explore. In August I visited the family in Germany. For the third time I drove in the 1997 Mitsubishi Space Wagon, which never had any problems during the trip. The best car purchase ever, best £600 ever spent!

Then in September the new semester began. This time 2 weeks earlier, because LeedsMet has changes the schedule this year. And now I am in the midst of the semester, preparing lectures and tutorials, managing the proof-of-concept project and the EuroPLOT project, supervising PhD students, writing a paper for an upcoming symposium. Many things to keep me busy.

I hope to be able to write once in a while again a blog post; but I know that I nowadays have less time to do so, compared to previous times.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Einstein on the Beach - Opera at the Barbican

When looking through the London culture calendars for an event which I could attend during my three-day work-related stay in London at the 2nd weekend in May, I found that the opera "Einstein on the Beach" would be performed during that time. This sounded interesting, and I was in the mood for something contemporary, instead of "the usual" museal 19th and 20th century regurgitation of classical music works which I already knew by heart. So without much further research, I booked a ticket online.

The composer of the music is Philip Glass. I do not know much of his music oevre, but I knew that he is a proponent of "minimal music", in contrast to "maximal music" (such as by Mahler for example). One of his compositions I had enjoyed many years ago: the music to the film Koyaanisqatsi from 1982, which at that time I actually saw in a movie theatre. This film and the music had impressed me very much, the rhythms and cycles of nature and man-made world were excellently visualized - and Glass put this into his repetitive minimal-music very fittingly. So I expected something similar to be in this opera. It was also announced as being plot-less, which I was looking forward to.

This opera had been written in 1976, together with Robert Wilson, who seems to be a nice bloke - even has his own Facebook page (btw, also Philip Glass has his own page on Facebook). The opera is supposed to show scenes from the world of Albert Einstein; a summary of this work can be read on Wikipedia. This production is now going around on a tour through Europe, and now was for the first time in the UK.

So I went into the theater with high expectations. I had never before been to the Barbican; on the map it looked like a park with some lakes, but when I came closer, following the signs, I realized that there was no natural park, but instead there was an assembly of thick straight concrete buildings, placed around a rectangular pond. A typical 1970s architecture, dark, already weathered concrete, a far cry from the current post-modern design-fetishist decorative architectural style that pops up everywhere. But honest in its purpose-ness - no false pretenses, and I actually like the spatial arrangement and proximity of residential areas with a culture center.

The performance was scheduled to be 5 hours, without intermission; so I had a bottle of water with me and a few cheese sticks. The theater was filled almost completely. Already while the audience was taking their seats, the "performance" had begun: a few performers outside of the curtain area did some counting.

Then the curtain went up, and the action began. First I enjoyed the visuals, the movements of the actors, the never-ending music. But then I got lost somewhere, as things began to be repetitive, stretched-out in time, and veeeery slow. There appeared no connection, no reason for why the actors were doing what they were doing. This went on through all the acts. Some of the lighting and the effects were quite nice, but to me this appeared to be just a very meaningless aestheticism, instead of a true meaningful scenario (which for example Koyaanisqatsi did have). I was not missing any plot, but was missing a coherence. The only reference to Einstein was that a guy who supposedly looked like him (actually he looked more like old Edvard Grieg), sat at the side of the stage and played a violin, the same few notes for more than half an hour. In the main stage, there was twice the scene of a trial, but it was not clear who against whom, and what the crime was. Some trivialities in the text "these are the days, my friends, these are the days. My friends. These are the days..." and similar. Maybe quite shocking to a 1970s audience, but today, where was the punch? Other highlights of the texts are the singing of numbers, or singing "do re mi fa so..." to the notes. However, in one part they were actually wrong (appeared to be a minor scale instead of a major) - they should have studied the "Sounds of Music" better where this was done correctly.

Twice there were dance scenes, which actually worked quite well, together with Glass' music. But the second time it appeared a bit repetitive, showing in principle the same dance movements as before.

The final scene had some gigantic machine being operated by people. What was that machine? What were the symbols that were shown? Do these circles mean anything? Yes, it looked nice and impressive, but for what purpose?

What I would have expected to see: a plot-less visualisation and musification of some aspects of Einstein's theories. Relativity would be a very rich theory which has plenty of things to show. Time travel. Atomic structure. And those "Gedanken-Experimente" which Einstein often made to illustrate things, for example what if a train travels at the speed of light, and one walks in the train... there is plenty of interesting stuff! But none of that was seen in the opera. No reference to it, no hint. Instead, there was just some empty monologue, repetitive, deliberately meaningless, given by often robotic figures. It appeared that everything was just there for a plain, vain, visual aesthetic effect. And for nothing else. And that is a pity. There was much more potential, in the topic, in the music, in the staging, but this potential was not realized. Musically there was actually a highlight: there was a solo for saxophone, followed by a short piece for organ. And here Glass did show that he indeed can be a master of modulations which do not simply have to be repeated forever, but which actually go somewhere. This appeared to be the musical climax - but nothing was made of it in the stage play and the libretto.

After the first hour, I slowly fell asleep for a few times, either due to the hypnotic character of Glass' music, or due to the uninspiring stagnant development on the stage, or simple because two full days of work meetings had taken their toll on my ability to concentrate. But, according to Glass himself, it is ok to fall asleep during this work, because when one wakes up, the work will still be going on. And I would add: not much would have been missed, as there would not have any progression have happened on stage.

There was another highlight, although not on the stage: in the audience, one elderly women took out her iphone and did some texting. I had switched off my phone, out of courtesy to others, but her activity appeared encouraging. Then she did something that I was actually also itching to do: she took a few pictures of the stage action. This was expressively forbidden, but the rebel in me approved her action (although not going as far as getting my own phone out and following her example). Behind her there was a younger woman, who did not approve: she tapped on her shoulder and talked into the older woman's ear, probably telling her that she should not do this. But the woman continued, took a few more pictures. The young woman then seemed to get more aggressive: she leaned forward and wanted actually to take the iPhone out of the other woman's hand! Cat fight! But the older woman just bent more forward and continued, ignoring the young aggressive one behind her. Then she stopped and put the phone away. This little episode had more drama and entertaining value than the whole opera!

Maybe my mind is just too small to understand the intellectual significance of this opera. It appeared that most of the audience, in contrast to myself, did have the mental capacity for this: there were standing ovations and loud applause, many of the audience having a face glowing with enthusiastic praise. I then joined in with the applause, not for the opera, but for the cast, who actually gave a remarkable performance.

Maybe next time when searching for a music event, I will go to one of those museal 19th and 20th century regurgitation of classical music works which I already knew by heart.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Audio in HTML5

For the reorganisation of my music website, I have decided to use the <audio> features of HTML5. This new tag allows browser-independent access and streaming of audio, without the need of a plug-in. Makes it easier for the web user to listen to music files.

There is a lot of info on the web on how to do it, so just do a search on Google. In my opinion, the most significant aspect is that it allows to use functions/methods/attributes of the audio and control it programmatically through Javascript.

This is in principle how it is done:

<audio controls="controls">
<source src="song.ogg" type="audio/ogg"></source>
<source src="song.mp3" type="audio/mpeg"></source>
Your browser does not support the audio element.

One advantage of this HTML5 audio player method is that it shows a player interface that is built in to the browser. However, there are inconsistencies: each browser shows its own player interface. Here in the upper left of this segment is the Chrome player (as of Chrome 16).

The Microsoft Internet Explorer 9 audio player is the largest one - this fact that the players in browsers have different sizes makes it difficult to put them into resizeable web page templates; so as a consequence, the webpages will look differently on each browser, which is a major shortcoming. On the other hand, this Microsoft IE9 audio player shows also the playing time (although incorrectly for VBR-encoded MP3 files).

Apple's Safari web browser shows the smallest audio player, which is good for space-saving webpages. It also works well on the Apple iPhone - no wonder, since Apple has been pushing HTML5 for a while, as replacement for Flash.

Firefox is the browser with the most problematic support of the new HTML5 audio: first of all, it does not support MP3 files directly. On my PC, Firefox normally would play MP3 files through the Quicktime plugin. But directly playing them through the HTML5 audio player is not (yet?) supported, I guess for MP3 licensing issues. Instead, Firefox requires the files to be in the odd-ball OGG format. Is actually not so unusual, as music files on Wikipedia also are in OGG. This is because OGG is free, no licensing fee required, whereas when MP3 technology is being used, there is the threat of a law suit regarding possible licensing fees looming. This means that each file that is available as an MP3 file also needs to be there as an OGG file - double work for the web hoster. Another issue with Firefox is that it does not seem to support the methods of the audio tag: I was not able to control play(), pause(), or volume. Not really crucial at this moment, but quite strange, especially since Firefox has gone from version 4 sometime in April 2011 to version 10 now (February 2012) - the Mozilla developers must currently have different priorities.

I have not been able to get this HTML5 audio working on the new Windows Phone Internet Explorer. The visual player interface shows up, I can press the play button, but nothing happens. It might be that this has to do with a lack of support for the explicit control of the methods play(), but I have not yet done any further experiments. If Windows Phone is supposed to be second in the mobile market place by 2015, as suggested in press articles recently, then the Windows Phone developers have to go back to work and solve these issues quickly. Playing MP3s is nowadays essential for the success of a mobile phone, and HTML5 audio is the way to do it properly.

On my website I did implement a few things: first I made the sound to fade-in / fade-out, when the play/pause button is clicked. I always hate it when the sound suddenly starts or suddenly stops, and many of the commercial music distributors such as Amazon have implemented this fading, probably on their server side. Using the HTML5 for this is a bit problematic: the fading does not work very smoothly, as the volume change is apparently only applied when the next chunk of audio data is played, making the volume change a bit choppy. And when pausing it, there is a short audio gap, before I override the pause button and make it play again with a fade-out. Not very elegant, but works for now ok.

One important thing that I also have implemented is to have a more direct control over protecting the MP3 files. This would probably also work without HTML5 (I did not try), but using HTML5 gave me the opportunity to change how the MP3 files are accessed. Instead of directly putting the music filename into the src field of the audio tag, I put a link to another PHP script. In there, I read the file (hereby hiding the real filename and the location folder from the user) and stream it out. This allows to stream only a certain part of a file, which could be the first 30 seconds or a random part within the file. I also have implemented a kind of authentication scheme, which ensures that the file is accessed only through proper authorisation. This scheme is based on a "secret" calculation of a code, which needs to match a code that is associated with the MP3 file. Works fine so far, and I can even control selectively the file access. For example, those who come to my site through Facebook and have "liked" my facebook page, will get more free access to music. Hopefully this will add more fans!