Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Principles of Playlist Construction: Length of Playlist

Principles of Playlist Construction: Length of Playlist

  I think there are right and wrong answers when it comes to the principles of playlist construction.  It's not something I would discuss in public, but if you take any of the major playlist services: Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal, the principles of the same.

The Right Length of the Playlist:

       A playlist needs to be long enough so that you do not grow tired of it before you can naturally find new music for that playlist.   For example, a playlist of ten songs, where each song is 3 to 4 minutes long, is too short.   Amazingly enough, there are plenty of examples of Spotify ITSELF violating these obvious true/false rules.  Spotify often provides playlists of pop songs that are under two hours of length.  If an average song on that playlist is three and a half minutes, a ninety minute playlist would have something like 25-30 songs.  No human being is going to listen to a playlist that short without tiring of it.
  I would argue that the optimum length for a playlist is somewhere between 100 and 200 songs depending on the average length of each song.  This should produce a playlist of 10 to 15 hours of music, which I would argue is ideal.  The idea of a one to two hour playlist is itself rooted in the recording technology of the 20th century- up to and including the downloading of the mp3 album- but does not take into account the changes wrought by streaming music services.

  The idea behind having several (1 to 5) 10 to 15 hour playlist is that you have an adequate selection of music to carry you through days, weeks, or even months when you have little time to identify new music to listen to.  For example, a student, trying to get through finals, is likely to need a 10-15 hour playlist to help them study and prepare for test taking.  Once these playlists have been developed on one device, they can then follow the user into ambient listening situations: in public, driving in cars, using headphones, etc.

  Many people have all are part of the working day where they can't listen to music at all and of course there is some period where you are sleeping, so the playlists have to address major periods outside those zones.   However, you don't want the playlist to narrowly tied to one specific purpose, you want it to be broad enough to encompass multiple purposes.   To give another Spotify derived example, they have playlists like Morning Commute or Evening Commute- both are too narrow  Commute playlists are likely to share songs with larger categories encompassing a greater range of music.  As I said before, I think the three major playlists are fast, medium and slow tempos- all other topical playlists can be subsumed into one of these three.

Joseph Andrews (1742) by Henry Fielding

Ann Margaret as a buxom redhead in the 1975 movie version of Joseph Andrews typifies the "ribaldry" endemic in the novel as it existed in the 18th century.
Joseph Andrews (1742)
by Henry Fielding

     You can argue the point that Henry Fielding was the first novelist, properly speaking.  Not a father of the novel but an actual novelist, making a living writing novels and selling copies of them to a general audience.  The timing of each 18th century entry in the 1001 Books project is important because there are only 50ish titles to cover an entire century with three literature's (English, French and German) represented and many others left out entirely.    It goes without saying that the 18th century is most dominated by English/British authors and that the invention of the novel as a modern art form happened exclusively in England in the mid 18th century, and Joseph Andrews is Exhibit "A" in the argument that the novel was fully developed in England in the mid 18th century.  1742.  The year Joseph Andrews was published.

      I don't know what to make of the repeated use of incest as a plot point in 18th century English lit. First Moll Flanders, and now Joseph Andrews- both use the prospect of brother/sister loving as a narrative device. I'm now four books into my survey of 18th century british literature and I have to say- I simply can't imagine what would possess a soul to pursue the study of literature beyond an undergraduate familiarity. Graduate school in literature? Becoming a professor of literature? I don't get it. My thought was that by starting this project I could generate interesting ideas for blog posts, but it's quite the opposite. I enjoy reading the novels, but it's a struggle to conceive of anything that would be interesting to anybody else.

        Joseph Andrews was originally published in the 1740's. It was written by Fielding as a kind of literary response to Samuel Richardson's "Pamela", which was the "sentimental" tale of a servant girl who was wooed by her lascivious master, eventually convincing him to marry her. Upon publication, Pamela took fashionable London by storm- readers were shocked by the frank discussion of sexuality and edified by the "moral" triumph. Fielding responded, first by authoring a response to Pamela called "Shamela" in which a bawdy servant girl seduces her way to the top.

         After the success of Shamela, Fielding wrote Joseph Andrews, which purports to be the tale of Pamela's brother. Pamela appears as a character in Joseph Andrews, now married to her aristo husband. In fact, Joseph Andrews has all the markings of something that could well be described as "post modern" and the fact that it was, in fact, written in 1740, is further proof- in my mind- of the proposition that to describe anything other then architecture as "post modern" is to brand yourself as a moron. Self awareness and reflexivity are not characteristic of post modernism, but rather characteristic of modernism itself. The fact is that writers in the 18th century were just as self aware as any "post modern" author, and Joseph Andrews is fair prove of that.

  Fielding repeatedly breaks into digressions and tangents that make the reader conscious of the artificiality of the form of the novel. Joseph Andrews is filled with self consciousness, inside jokes, allusions to current events and jibes at contemporary society. The picture Fielding paints of British society circa 1740 makes it clear to me why so many people chose to emigrate. Fielding is at his sharpest when he mimics the pompous legal culture of 18th century Britain. Andrews and his traveling companions are repeatedly arrested under mistaken and/or dubious circumstances, only to be freed for equally mistaken or dubious reasons.

     The story, such as it is, begins with Andrews being discharged from the service of the Lady Booby- she wants to get into his pants after her husband dies, he resists her. He starts on the road from London towards his home parish in the county. Along the way he falls in with Abraham Adams- a clergy man from his home town. Adams is the comic relief to Andrew's humorless leading man. The two travel from inn to inn before meeting up with Andrew's beloved- Fanny. The three of them continue home, begging for money, getting arrests for ridiculous "crimes" and listening to various people relate their life stories. The narrative is quite obviously meant to be a critique of english society of the time, particularly of the upper classes, who are constantly described as being venal, poorly educated buffoons. At one point, Adams is attacked by the hunting dogs of a country squire who delights in having his dogs attack men. At another, they are entertained by a different country squire who is known far and wide for making promises and disregarding them.

     Upon their final arrival at their home town, Joseph and Fanny announce they are to be married. Lady Booby comes back from London and tries to thwart the marriage, and she is assisted by her nephew and Joseph's sister- Pamela- the character from the Samuel Richardson novel. Then of course, it's time for the incest twist, and all is resolved for the better. Joseph Andrews should be required reading for every pompous undergraduate who uses the phrase "post modern" in their intro to lit class in college. Might I suggest delivery via a well aimed throw at the back of the head?

The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) by Jane Somers (Doris Lessing)

Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing, photographed as a young woman.
Book Review
The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983)
 by Jane Somers (Doris Lessing)

   If I had to give a short summary of the career of Doris Lessing it would be, "Early success, both critical and popular, followed by a series of head scratching decisions regarding choices surrounding genre and theme, followed by her canonization as a living saint after she won the Nobel Prize in 2001.  It is telling that Lessing never won a Booker Prize, probably because nobody really liked anything she wrote between 1962 (The Golden Notebook) and The Good Terrorist (1985).   Her career, I think, points to the difficulties artists face when they achieve both critical AND popular success- basically obtaining a life time supply of money and artistic credibility over night, typically with the publication of a "hit" work of art.  Since the "hit" really didn't coalese until after the end of World War II, you can't really have this discussion for very many critical/popular successful authors publishing prior to 1950.

  Lessing, who had her first hit with the Grass is Singing IN 1950, is actually perhaps the first of these modern authors and her career is instructive.  The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published as the work of an unknown, new author, name of Jane Somers.  Lessing, of course, was a formidable force in the early 1980's, and her secret authorship was enough to ensure that it received ample critical notice, but did not prove successful either critically or popularly.

    The mystery was "revealed" in 1984, when Lessing published this book and a sequel under her own name as The Diaries of Jane Somers.  She then claimed that she had decided to publish under a pseudonym to make a point about how difficult it was for an unknown author to make a splash, ignoring that Jane Somers received all the support Lessing herself would have received.

   The Diaries of Jane Somers were published around the same time she was writing her five part Canopus series- a sequence of abstruse sufi-inspired science fiction novels which were roundly ignored by critical and popular audiences alike.  Both forays show the struggles of an author trying to change her artistic identity mid career, not because of failure, but because of success.

   The book itself is a marginal 1001 Books participant.  Like the book which represents her Canopus series of science fiction novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour was culled in 2008.  I firmly agree with the decision.  Jane Somers is a single (widowed), childless urban professional, on the cusp of what you might call a "yuppie."  She works editing a high achieving women's magazine, called Lillith, which sounds like Cosmopolitan mixed with the New Yorker.   Her life begins to change when her best (and only) friend, Joyce- who is also her boss at the magazine- decamps for America, the victim of a failing marriage and leaves her alone.

  She makes a chance connection with a 90 year old woman living by herself nearby,  Maude, and is slowly drawn into her world.  At the same time, she grapples with family issues and work, eventually providing a role model for her sister's daughter and writing a novel which proves successful.  If it sounds like a Hallmark movie, that's because it could be.  At times the writing reminded me of something like Bridget Jones diary- the magazine column, not the film.

  Ultimately, there is great depth to the Maude/Jane relationship, but it is not fun getting there. Unless you actually work with the elderly, the intimate descriptions of cleaning a ninety year old woman with stomach cancer are likely to make you, at the very least, pause.  The subject matter also made me question why Doris Lessing wouldn't want to publish this dark, serious, very literary material under her own name.  It's not like The Diary of a Good Neighbour is a romance novel, and she had already published more-or-less straight genre science fiction under her own name.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

If Not Now, When? (1982) by Primo Levi

Book Review
If Not Now, When? (1982)
by Primo Levi

   Each time I read another book about the Holocaust I feel compelled to reference my Jewish upbringing in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980's and 90's.   The lesson I learned from 10 years of religious education mostly focused on the Holocaust and it's after-effects was that certainly God does not exist and that if he does exist, his love isn't worth much if he can allow the Holocaust to go down.  Fortunately, reform Judaism doesn't ask much of adherents-someone born to a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether they like it or not, that's how it works.  I had a Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that occurs for boys and girls(now) at the age of 13.   After that, some scattered youth group participation in high school and college.

  Judaism, even before the extinction level event of the Holocaust, is very much focused on survival and as a by product, reproduction is the sine qua non of adult Jewish life.  Either you are literally participating only because you have children, or you are hoping for help in finding a partner with which you can reproduce.  Compared to conservative and orthodox Judaism, the actual religious content of reform Judaism is loose, and takes the form of a discussion of ethics and laws.   Reform Judaism was actually started by highly assimilated German Jews in the 19th century, and many of it's rituals ape the rituals of the 19th century Protestant congregations of Germany.

  The historical irony of the Holocaust is that it's epicenter, Germany was also the locus of assimilated Jewry's most notable success.   Primo Levi, who maintains his status as the pre-eminent narrator of the Holocaust, was not a German Jew- he was Italian, and Italian Jewry was just as successful- much more so- if one considers the impact of the Holocaust among their respective populations.  Although he had direct contact with the Holocaust, he did not get both barrels to the face in the manner of the Jewish communities of Poland, Ukraine and German occupied Russia, and it is no surprise to find him in that territory in If Not Now, When, his fictionalized narrative of Jewish partisan resistance to Germany in the waning days of World War II.

  If Not Now, When is part of a larger, post World War II trend in Jewish narrative that seeks to provide examples of resistance to the Holocaust during World War II.  The concern is that by claiming victim status, the Jewish people weaken themselves in their own eyes and the eyes of others.   It's an argument I'm very familiar with, from my religious education, where we would watch films like The Raid on Entebbe (about a Jewish commando operation in Uganda.) and talk about stereotypes.

   It occurred to me that If Not Now, When works equally well as a post-apocalyptic tale of survival, just substitute the German allied soldiers for Zombies and you would be good to go.  I'd also observe that the story of If Not Now, When is as compelling as any genre action film, worth reading just for the thrill of it.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

A Tale of of a Tub (1704) by Jonathan Swift

The Oxford World's Classics cover of the book containing A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift was the best I could do for an image to accompany this post.

Book Review:
A Tale of of a Tub (1704)
by Jonathan Swift

   Jonathan Swift is a protean figure who sits astride the birth of the novel, not a novelist  himself, but vital in shaping the parameters of what the novel could become.  He's best know for his tales, Gulliver's Travels being best known, and for his satire, the cannibalism preaching Modest Proposal being most remembered in that category.  A Tale of a Tub has elements of both veins of Swift's work.

  Tale of a Tub  is putatively a ham handed parable about a man with three sons, Peter, Martin & Jack. The man is god, his sons represent the Catholic Church, the Church of England and Protestants. Interspersed with the "story" chapters are numerous digressions, where the narrator- who is, in fact, supposed to come off as an idiot- makes numerous observations about the "culture of criticism" circa 1700 or so. You need to have some background in the era to appreciate quips about ancient vs. modern man or to chuckle out loud about the narrator's analysis of the history of criticism, but underneath the oblique references is some trenchant humor about the ease with which the newly empowered feel about venturing their (moronic) opinions about anything & everything.

  The early 18th century bore many resemblances to our current situation, in terms of conditions being rife for the production of a new art form (the novel).  Notably, the spread of the printing press to allow printing of cheap one sheets created a new market for shorter, popular works.  Swift was a master of this format, and he was writing at a time when the novel itself did not exist.  You can imagine Swift as a blogger or twitter personality of his day, working in a new media but frowned upon by his elders.

  Like many of the 18th century works which preceded the codification of what was and was not a novel, A Tale of a Tub has an anarchic sensibility that is likely to remind modern readers of what we call "post-modern."  In reality, 18th century fiction, like post-modernism, stood outside the tenets of 19th and 20th century "realism."  

Monday, January 30, 2017

The House of the Spirits (1982) by Isabel Allende

Image result for house of the spirits winona ryder
Wynona Ryder played third generation Trueba, Blanca, in the movie version of The House of the Spriits, by Isabel Allende.
Book Review
The House of the Spirits (1982)
 by Isabel Allende

   The House of the Spirits, a smash-hit debut novel by Chilean author Isabel Allende, was rejected by several Spanish language publishing houses before it was accepted by a publisher in Buenos Aires.  I suppose there are multiple possibilities for the number of rejections of what was such a smash hit novel.  One obvious explanation is political- the early 1980's was an era for dictatorship across much of the Latin American (and Iberia peninsular) worlds.  Allende was the niece of the Chilean socialist President Salvador Allende, who had famously been deposed in a CIA backed coup, and Dictator Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile until 1990.

  While The House of the Spirits has become one of the standard bearers for Magical Realism in the decades since publication, it is also firmly, unmistakably, about Chile from the perspective of a daughter of the conservative, land-owning class.   Like many children of elites, Isabel Allende turned out far more liberal than her grand parents would imagine, and it is this contrast, between the world of patriarch Esteban Trueba and the world of his children and grandchildren, that motivates the Magical Realism of The House of the Spirits.

  Allende switches between the omniscient third-party narrator and portions narrated by Trueba himself.  Trueba was based on Allende's own grandfather, and he is the central protagonist, with a hearty supporting cast of whores, wives, children and grand-children.  The 20th century passes in the back ground, with World War II enacted in the study of Trueba's country estate, and 60's counter-culture embodied by the girlfriend of one of Trueba's twin sons.   Although magical realism is often equated with throwing a hazy gauze over painful histories, Allende updates her brand of magic to include class war, drug addiction, prostitution, rape and abortion.

  When the magical realism appears, it is more likely than not a fillip, as supposed to being central to a plot point or theme.   In Allende's world, the magic is very much part of the real world, as is illustrated when arch-conservative senator Esteban Trueba argues that socialism can not abide in the unnamed Chile-stand in because socialism "lacks magic" and the people "have a magical soul."


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