Time Tripping

I’m not saying where this is because I’m afraid of getting in trouble. I know it’s very weird taking pictures in a public bathroom, but I just love the 19th century back-in-time feel of this room, and I swear that at the time no one was in there besides myself. Look at these wood doors, all the marble, the brass. And scroll down and check out the fire hose.

Maybe some of you see things like this all the time, but it looks like something we don’t even use anymore to me. Very steam punk.

Who sang it better: Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi?

This post is inspired by Mavis’s recent comments about the sopranos Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, and who stayed on pitch. This was always (and maybe still is?) a huge debate, I gather. When I was researching the subject of audio forensics I learned about a fascinating experiment regarding this very question.

Briefly, the field of audio forensics began in the late fifties and early sixties when the NYPD asked scientists at Bell Labs for help identifying who was telephoning bomb threats to a number of airlines. Using something called a spectrograph, Dr. Lawrence Kersta made visual representations of the phone conversations. These pictures are called voiceprints. Kersta had assisted in their development during WWII, when the military was looking for ways to identify enemy voices over the radio.

Kersta pronounced voiceprints as distinctive and reliable as fingerprints for identifying people, and he left Bell Labs to form his own company. The field of audio forensics was born.

Kersta was involved in many famous cases in his lifetime, including the Kennedy assassination, the Clifford Irving Howard Huges hoax, and in 1969, when rumor spread that Beatle Paul McCartney was dead and replaced by a look and sound-alike, Kersta compared voiceprints from older recordings of McCartney to ones that were current and determined that Paul was very much alive.

But one interesting thing Kersta discovered was: people can be as unreliable about recalling what they heard as they are about what they saw. We know many people have been falsely convicted based on eye witness testimony. Apparently ear witness testimony can be just as iffy, and people don’t always hear what they think they heard.

I interviewed Tom Owen, an audio forensic examiner certified by the American College of Forensic Examiners. He was also once the Chief Engineer for the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives at Lincoln Center. He told me how he used Kersta’s spectrograph to compare the high C’s of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi.

“Certain singers can hold a high C forever,” Owen told me, “but very few singers can hold the same pitch forever.” Owen made voice prints from recordings of each singer. “You can see that Tebaldi was right on the money … and Maria Callas was all over the place … she hit the note but she couldn’t hold the note. That’s forensics, it is what it is, whether it’s a singer or a killer or a ballistics thing, it is what it is … you’re showing what’s there.”

Of course Mavis’s larger point was, Tebaldi’s high C may have been pitch perfect, but Callas’s was more artful and beautiful.

One more thing, I visited the Bell Labs archives and the curator was kind enough to dig up an old Bell Labs promotional film called “Science Behind Speech.” This is Lawrence Kersta demonstrating what a spectrograph does.

A shot of conductor John Maclay and the orchestra and audience after one of the Choral Society of Grace Church concerts.

How much does pitch matter?

Normally I would say it matters more than anything. There are all sorts of voices out there, many not traditionally beautiful, but we love them anyway. Actually, come to think of it, someone can have a downright ugly voice, but if they sing with enough heart we want listen to them. But if someone is out of tune, that just never works.

Last night, however, when Shirley Bassey belted out Goldfinger, her pitch was all over the place, and at first I cringed. Then, just as quickly, it didn’t matter. First, her voice still had power, she can still really belt it out. But the main thing was, she was just so game. She gave it everything, and didn’t hold back anything, regardless of the result, and she was only pitchy here and there. Most of it was stupendous. This is what music is about. I doubt there’s a handful of people in the world who would be able to pull that off, but only the most fussy would have missed the art in that performance and why she got a standing ovation. She was big, strong, fearless and fabulous.

The usual. Bleeck is blissful to be near the love of his life, Finney looks like he’s plotting murder.

This Year I’m Live Tweeting the Oscars

It’s an experiment. I think tweeting will be easier and faster than updating my blog, which really isn’t the best medium for this sort of thing. So if you want to follow my tweets, click here.

Don’t you wish they had come up with a more dignified word than tweets?

This is looking out onto Duane and Reade Streets from Staple Street in Tribeca, near where Echo’s offices used to be (Echo is the online community aka social network I run). God I loved those offices. When I first moved down there it felt like it was just me and Robert DeNiro, who seemed to own every building surrounding me, and had like, three restaurants at one point. We called the area DeNiroVille.

.25 x 29

I don’t want to say where, because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but the other day I needed to pay for 29 things that cost 25 cents each. The person who was there to take my money didn’t have a calculator and she didn’t know how to multiply those numbers manually. I did it for her.

I was thinking about how terrible I am at math (except for the simplest calculations, like the one above). I wasn’t always, but at a certain point in my mathematical education my mind shut down and it’s not even a matter of making mistakes, my brain won’t even try. It’s hard to describe, but if I attempt to concentrate my brain starts acting like a little kid holding its breath until it turns blue. It will not make any effort. It’s got to be psychological. My best guess was I had a math teach one year who loved to humiliate me. Mr. McGrath. He was a jackass. He’s probably dead now. Serves him right. Except I’ll be dead one of these days too. So.

I love the cacophony of these signs. Usually I think I like a more ordered look, but when I see it in practice, like the town of Sag Harbor on Long Island, where every storefront is absolutely coordinated, I find it appalling. Bring on the chaos. Like my mind in rebellion against numbers. (Except I really wish my mind wouldn’t do that.)