Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Dawkins and Darwin

I really enjoyed Richard Dawkins' recent television series about Darwin, The Genius of Charles Darwin. Dawkins is treated like a god by atheists (or at least a pope), and it's easy to see why. He's a very intelligent guy who is passionate about evolution as the explanation for the development of life, intelligent or otherwise; and he explains how it all works brilliantly. Not for him the creationism or 'intelligent design' theories propounded by many religious groups.

I'm sold on evolution as the explanation of how life developed, and even more so after watching Dawkins' series. The evidence for evolution is there in abundance - in fossils, bones and DNA - and Dawkins' presentation of it, despite my prior knowledge of how the process generally works, was illuminating. Dawkins described nature as it really is: an arms race between species, with only the winners getting to pass on their genes - resulting, over time, in the emergence and development of different kinds of creatures.

Above all though,  The Genius of Charles Darwin depicted how bleak evolution is. Natural selection isn't concerned with morality; it is all about effective mechanisms passing their genes on, regardless of what the mechanisms in question do. This is why parasites that feed on young children's eyes have evolved successfully, or viruses like AIDS. When you look at these horrendous examples of nature's handywork, it almost seems as though they in themselves argue against the existence of a creator, or certainly a benign one. What kind of creator, for example, would want to create cancer?

Looking at the biological evidence presented by Dawkins and other scientists, and the sheer brutalness of nature, I'm convinced that natural selection, not godly intervention, is the driving force behind the development of species.

What still confuses me though, is the context in which all this happens. Natural selection has to operate in accordance to the laws of physics: it can't circumvent fundamental laws/units or concepts such as matter, time, space, or gravity - regardless of how much a clever insect wants to pass on its genes. There is an order in the universe which all processes and entities have to obey. The apple must fall from the tree; the electron has to spin around the atom; a triangle has to have three sides. 

Which inevitably leads to that age-old question: why? I don't think Dawkins or Darwin, for all their brilliance, offer us an answer to that. Accepting the reality of natural selection - and it is very real - doesn't detract from the other reality, which is that we may be naturally selected, but we're still living in a very odd (if beautiful) universe with lots of big balls going round other big balls. I find this profoundly weird, and natural selection doesn't explain the origin of the laws of physics, or, let's face it, natural selection. Frankly, I want to know why the universe was created the way it was, and why its fundamental units facilitate natural selection.

It is nature's fundamental laws - for laws they are - that leave the door open in my mind to the existence of a creator. During my time on this particular big ball, I've never come across a physical law that natural selection was responsible for (and not a civil servant). Earthly laws, at least, are created; could the physical ones be?

If a creator is responsible for the laws of the universe, I'm not sure whether he, she or it is a God, and I certainly think that if he/she/it exists, it's not necessarily benign, and maybe it's not even clever. Part of me suspects that the universe may have been created by the cosmic equivalent of a GSCE science student who heated up some dodgy chemicals using his Bunsen burner when his teacher wasn't looking (I know I tried that in the lab; somebody's probably blogging about it at a microscopic level right now). 

I remain a big fan of Dawkins and I love his work; he's really got me thinking about nature. But more than that he's got me thinking about why nature exists at all. And neither he nor any religious figure has ever answered that one satisfactorily for me.

There's always the comments section of this blog though - feel free to have a bash.


Thursday, 14 August 2008

West Side Story

Right, so off to Sadler's Wells for the first time to actually see a performance, rather than drink in the bar.

I went off theatre a bit after doing a degree in it - over the course of four years I saw (and occasionally contributed to) so many bad plays that I felt that a (poorly paid) life in the theatre just wasn't for me. Most directors I met were charlatans and most actors I encountered had bigger egos than mine (quite an achievement) so I opted instead for an attempt at a career in an even filthier, stupider business (music).

So in short, I haven't been to see a show in a while.

So why did I relent? Well, simply because the show that was on was West Side Story, of which I am a very big fan. There are some fantastic numbers in it - America, I think, is one of the best pop songs going, containing some incredibly sharp lyrics that provide a very apt social commentary on today's United States, never mind that of the era which produced the musical (the 1950s).

Try these:

I like to be in America! / O.K. by me in America! / Ev'rything free in America. / For a small fee in America!


Buying on credit is so nice / One look at us, and they charge twice / I have my own washing machine / What will you have, though, to keep clean?


Life can be bright in America / If you can fight in America / Life is all right in America/ If you're a white in America

So what did I think of the stage version? I felt it was a bit of a curate's egg; if I were a judge on one of those ghastly shows presented by Graham Norton, I'd have given it five, or maybe six out of ten.

Maybe my seat was the problem - watching the show as though I were in a helicopter definitely didn't help. I might have felt a bit warmer towards the performance had I been closer to the action (there were, after all, lots of skimpily dressed dancers to admire; despite my best efforts, my seat and eyesight prevented me from appreciating them to the full).

A bigger problem than my not being able to admire the scantily-clad dancers properly was arguably the set. In its day West Side Story was one of the most realistic, or naturalistic musicals going (if bursting into song a propos nothing can ever really be considered that realistic). But with this version, the set designer opted for minimalism - there was barely anything on stage, and the odd items we did get to see didn't look very 'period'. Despite this, the costume designer had opted for fairly authentic 1950s garb, so a very odd little world - a mismatch of real and unreal - was created on the stage. Maybe that was the intention, but it didn't really work - it felt oddly cheap or something, as though they had run out of money when it came to the set.

However, I think that what made me feel most unimpressed by the stage show was something the cast and crew couldn't really do anything about: the 1961 film version. The movie is so spectacular, containing such exhilarating performances, that whenever you thought of them during the stage version, it couldn't help but feeling a bit flat.

Take a look at the film version of 'America', below. Even in pixelated Youtube, you can't help but think that Rita Moreno's performance is one of the most exuberant, sexy performances ever to grace the silver screen. And the prancing dudes are pretty cool too.

In the stage version, this number sadly didn't have the prancing dudes - they were offstage doing something else, so the girls had the debate about the merits of America, or lack thereof, amongst themselves. As a result the piece didn't have half the sexual tension of the film version, or the 'battle of the sexes' angle.

In any event, despite my misgivings, the Sadler's Well version was great in one respect: it revived my interest in West Side Story, and has got me spending far too much time looking at dancing Puerto Ricans on my computer...and I feel faintly in love with Rita Moreno, below.

West Side Story also got me thinking about how some of the best pop songs ever are to be found hidden in camp musicals - but more on that in another blog post.


Saturday, 9 August 2008

The easiest way to support my music yet...

I've developed a nice little online gadget which makes it really easy for my supporters (slightly embarrassed to say fans) to spread the word about my music. I got the idea from the rather nifty 'Facebook Friend Finder' technology.

I'd be really grateful if you could use it to spread the word! Just...

  • Go to www.singletonmusic.com/invite/tellfriends.htm
  • Enter your email address and password (for example, your Hotmail email address and the password for that account).
  • You'll see a list of all your contacts, and you can select which ones you'd like to send my free album to.
To use it you'll need to have one of the following webmail accounts: Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, Lycos, ICQ, Rambler, Fastmail, Live, Katamail, Mailcom or Rediffmail. If you don't have one of those, you can use my other tell-a-friend tool here.

Your details are not stored, and your contacts will not end up on my mailing list. It's dead easy to use, you'll be supporting independent music, and your friends will get a free album. That link again is www.singletonmusic.com/invite/tellfriends.htm.

Ah go on.


Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Music by numbers

A while ago, I wrote a blog post about the increasing importance of data to musicians. The gist of it was that in the burgeoning 'free music' era, bands and musicians should aim to capture the details of people who are downloading their songs for free. The idea being that even if artists are not making money directly from recorded songs, they can generate income in other ways by marketing merchandise, tours and so on to fans whose email addresses they have obtained.

There's another type of data which is of increasing significance to musicians, and it doesn't necessarily involve email addresses. It's statistical data.

With the rise of social networks like Facebook, Myspace, iLike and Last FM, musicians now have a plethora of ways to measure how many people are listening to their music. For example, any band with a Myspace page will be able to see how many plays of their songs they are getting; which tracks tend to be more popular; and how many songs are downloaded (as opposed to just listened to). On iLike, there are similar statistics, which again let musicians see how many plays their tracks are getting, and other interesting counts, like how many people are adding a band's songs to Facebook pages and how many people are sharing particular songs with friends.

These statistics tend to focus on two things: popularity of songs, and listeners' behaviour. Both are of enormous interest to musicians.

The popularity measurement is fairly straightforward. Thanks to Myspace and Facebook a band can put up, say, five tracks on a profile and run an unofficial focus group on which of their songs would make the best singles (depending on how commercial-minded the band is, the tracks that get the most plays).

Looking at listeners' behaviour is more complicated, but extremely interesting. Thanks to social networks (and other sites) you can examine what listeners are doing with music. With a bit of investigation, you can find out who is

  • adding your song to their social networking page
  • dedicating your songs to friends
  • listing themselves as being a fan of your music
  • recommending you as an artist to online communities
  • feeding back on your music
  • talking about you behind your back
The list goes on, depending on which websites a you are using, but essentially, when you look at the data, pictures of behaviour emerge that can influence how bands and artists communicate and build relationships with fans.

All sites are not equal when it comes to music statistics though. Of all the social networks that I've used to promote my music, the one I trust the most for music statistics is Last FM. This is because it doesn't just measure online plays of music - it goes far beyond that. Every time a registered Last FM user plugs their iPod or MP3 player into their computer, it looks at what they've been listening to and uses it to compile statistics; the same happens when a user plays a cd on their PC. The statistics are extremely comprehensive too, with charts being compiled on a band's most popular songs overall, by week or over a 6 month period. And you can see exactly who's been playing your music, and how much.

Crucially, Last FM distinguishes between listeners and plays. This is not the case with Myspace, where you can only look at the number of plays of songs - there is no listener data. This is pretty useless really; generally, once a Myspace page is visited by either a human or a search engine webbot, the play tally goes up, regardless of whether the song has been listened to by the human or, er, webbot in question. And unlike Last FM, none of the data is stored; once you've removed a song from your page, the data goes with it.

In essence though there is a lot to be gleaned from the musical information that the web provides - by looking at who is playing your music, and what they're doing with it, I think it is possible to grow fanbases and understand what makes people tick musically. But it's hard work, and you have to be able to work out the good stats from the bad.

If you want to check out some of my statistics, my Last FM profile is at http://www.last.fm/music/Chris+Singleton.