Saturday, June 07, 2008

Ode to iTunes and iced coffee

Just as a proviso: I'm sure there's eleven-teen people out there who want to tell me about everything that's wrong with iTunes as a program or iTunes as a store or about Steve Jobs as a merchant and I'm sure everything you say is right.

But I come from a time when, if you were a teacher and wanted your students to have music to listen to, you sat (or, if you were spoiled senior faculty, had your TA sit) for hours with an LP turntable and a cassette deck, pasting together low-fi compilations of the pieces or movements you wanted students to concentrate upon. And that meant both lugging LPs around and the endless and constant erosion of audio fidelity (and the sheer lose-ability) of those anonymous cassettes. And the students couldn't find the opening of individual tracks. And the teacher had to own, beg, borrow, steal, or do without the specific recordings, even if they weren't ideal performances or the LPs were beat-to-shit. Hell, I even knew people who prepared for listening exams by memorizing the clicks 'n' scratches instead of the actual notes.

So if you want to nuhdz about Apple's corporate model or propound the virtues of your preferred alternative player (or file format), be my guest. But in the meantime, let me just say that the mp3, and even more specifically, iTunes's absolutely brilliant interface of audio file and database file technology, has absolutely transformed how I use recorded music, both as a teacher and as a public-radio host. Not just the portability and small-size of the format (and damned sure not its copyability--I'm a recording artist myself and I don't have any desire to rip off living musicians), but far, far more importantly, the software's unbelievable ability to enable customized additional data linked to specific tracks--and, most most importantly, the ability to attach that customized data directly to the sound-file (e.g, the "tags"). iTunes, and most user probably, primarily use this function to attach album cover art, or perhaps to attach a personalized ranking (1 to 5 Stars), which in turn basically models the user's listening patterns.

But at least three times as important as that, for me, as a teacher and radio programmer, is the ability to generate/locate/author additional data about the performance or the repertoire and to attach it to the sound-file. That, coupled with the database's ability to enable customized playlists, not through copying files (a la dubbed cassettes) but rather via creating new links (a la spreadsheet) means that the user can develop highly personalized, customized, searchable and organizable collections of specific tracks for any imaginable purpose.

That means, for teaching, I can take an mp3 from any source (no, of course I don't buy copy-protected mp3's from iTunes Store--why would I do that?!?), assign any specific credits (title, composer, artist, and most importantly genre), build into a playlist, link on the laptop or on a jump-drive, and play back within the course of and in any sequence that serves a given class. Any notes on the track that I want to provide for students, build into a lecture, or simply not have to re-type the next time I re-write the class, I can build into the "tags"--and thus never have to locate separately, as they are attached to the individual file.

For radio production, it's even more crucial and transformative: to generate ideas for new programs, I can scroll through my "Anglo-Celtic" genre category, ranked by title, composer,. artist, duration, date-last-played, or any other parameter I can think of, and out of that build a playlist for the program. Once the playlist exists, I can run searches on any keyword I can think of to find interesting excerpts I might not otherwise think of.

Example: recent seasonal program entitled "The First Rose of Summer". I searched all the tracks whose tags included "summer" or "rose"; then, coming up short, I could run a search on other Ireland/British Isles late spring/early summer flowers (primroses, etc) and find other tracks similarly suitable.

Back in the day, when I was entirely dependent for both resources and ideas upon the local independent CD shop's loans, I was in turn entirely dependent upon whatever they had or didn't have, and that I could or could not remember. I had a good collection of my own, and the resources of both radio station and CD shop to draw upon, but building a given show was entirely dependent upon my being able to locate and, even more significantly, remember the relevance of a certain track on a certain disc.

No more, because that's precisely what databases are for: to remember, organize, and customize knowledge. Input it once, and never have to remember it again. It's analogous to what we do and do not expect students themselves to retain anymore: data-retention is no longer by any stretch of the imagination the highest priority in our Master's and PhD candidates. Far far more important is command of the skill-set that lets the student find and then interpret the data. If, in an oral exam, a candidate says to me "I don't remember the data-component to this answer," they'll get damned near full credit from me if they can say "but the following places [A], [B], and [C] are the places I would go to find it, and here is what that data means."

That's what iTunes means for me. It's inverted the amount of time I spend searching out resources (far less than I used to) in favor of time I can spend arranging, interpreting, and presenting the patterned meaning of those resources (for more time than I used to afford). Every time I do a radio show and search out information on track, or the lyrics of a song, or an artist's bio, I'll paste that information into the tags. The iTunes "comments" window is pretty limited (maximum 200 characters or something like that), but the "lyrics" window would seem to be pretty much infinite. I've got entire Child ballads or CD liner notes pasted in to the tags on individual tracks. If I do that for every track I use for teaching or for a radio show, it means that I'll never again have to find that particular data again: because it's riveted-on to that mp3 track and it'll travel with that track from laptop hard-drive to dedicated media-hard-drive (160 gigs of mp3's and counting) to streaming teaching website to radio program and back again.

I don't give a shit about the iPhone, or much about the iPod (the "iPod bubble" is more than a bit of a nemesis when I'm dealing with college students) but you're going to have to pry my personalized iTunes libraries out of my cold, dead hands. Thank you Apple!

Oh, and thanks also to the heads-up staff of my local coffee-shop, who I patronize regularly as one "Office away from the Office", the free wi-fi and the distance it puts between me and television/refrigerator, and who also recently figured out the right way to make iced coffee (they were formerly proponents of the "pour hot coffee over a cup of ice and hope for the best" travesty.

Them days is gone. Now they know how to make proper, New England-style iced coffee (and no, I can't take credit for teaching it to 'em). Dharmonia's Italian grandparents and the guys who owned "Andy's Diner" in North Cambridge (our downstairs breakfast joint in the early '80s) would have approved:

Coyotebanjo's version of J&B's Toddy:

Dark Italian- or French-roast coffee, freshly ground.
Brew very strong (1.5 tablespoons fresh-ground coffee per cup) in a French press.
Once brewed, allow to sit until cooled to room temperature.
Once cooled, pour coffee and grounds into a glass container--best and most authentic is a repurposed Italian-flavoring bottle.
Refrigerate for at least 14 hours.
When thoroughly chilled (overnight), strain and stored the coffee chilled.
To prepared, add at least 3 jiggers infused coffee ("toddy") to a tall glass.
Fill the glass with ice. Add cold filtered water.
Best when topped with righteous half-and-half and brown espresso sugar.
Imbibe advisedly, preferably on a hot day when you have a lot to do.

No comments: