Thursday, May 03, 2007

Pete Townshend's Lifehouse- song of yourself

Even if you're an old Who fan like me, I completely understand why you think that by now, they're a tired old joke that refuses to go away. It's not just that Moon or Entwistle are gone or their endless series of farewell tours. Even some die-hard classic rock fans will tell you that leader/songwriter Pete Townshend's muse has dimmed a lot in the last few decades.

Even though I sympathize with those feelings, I don't agree completely. It's not just that he and Roger Daltrey (when his voice is working) can still put on an impressive live show, especially with Zak (son O' Ringo) Starkey filling in surprisingly well for Moon. In addition, he's also worked on a live series (also archived on the web) called In The Attic with girlfriend Rachel Fuller where we get to see PT in a smaller, more intimate spaces, reinterpreting his songs plus sharing the stage with some interesting guests (most notably Lou Reed, who he cited as one of his heroes). Also seeing PT at the recent SXSW festival being interviewed, it was obvious that he still has a sharp sense of humor and was, at the very least, trying to be as thoughtful as he could about his work: see the video here. And while the latest Who album isn't a classic entry in their catalog, note from the SXSW address his thoughts about Lifehouse.

To sum up, this was the project he immersed himself in after Tommy but never quite finished, with the remains of it becoming Who's Next. Many wondered if the left-overs formed the basis of a great album, what would the original project have sounded like? Much like the way that Brian Wilson picked up the pieces decades later to finally finish Smile, Townshend found that technology had finally caught up with his grand scheme and that he could finally complete Lifehouse after all these years. Beyond the (still) futuristic storyline, there was the intriguing idea that a song could be generated, suited to an individual based on their traits.

Until the end of July, Townshend decided to offer this free service that he and a team of developers have put together at the Lifehouse Method website. What happens is that you basically enter and upload some information and a customized "musical portrait" is created for you on the spot. The site's FAQ explains:

"After you've sat for your Method portraits, you can download them, play them back at your leisure, share them with your friends, compare them, noticing the similarities and differences between them, which will vary according to your input into the process. You may not like them, you may love them, you may prefer one to the other two, but, whatever your reaction, they will be authentic portraits, unique to you, based on the information gathered by your interaction with the Method software."

Out of base curiosity, it's kind of hard to resist at least looking into this. On the home page itself, there's a neat little Flash console that lets you play and mix the famous opening synth riffs from Who songs like "Baba O'Riley," "Eminence Front" and "Who Are You."

So what happens when you go in to try this? You start by filling out a form and then logging in. They ask you " What are your expectations for The Method?" I said something like "I'd like an interesting musical and social experience" (don't we all?). Next, they ask you for "a sample of your voice, a sound and a rhythm" plus a picture of yourself which you upload to the webiste. Unfortunately, the sound files have to be in WAV or AIFF format so you need to have a program to convert sound files (Goldwave is my favorite) if you don't have anything handy otherwise. They've got pictures for you to use if you don't have anything yourself and you can tap out a rhythm on your mouse if you don't have anything to upload either.

For my portrait, I found this great wooshing synth sound on my computer in the I386 directory (check it out- lots of fun sounds there). I dug up this nice noir picture of me on vacation but for the rhythm, I was disappointed that I couldn't quite get Public Enemy's "Security of the First World" (a great trip-hop beat later used by Madonna on "Justify My Love") so I had to go with a weak-ass equivalent of it by tapping it out on my mouse. I added a few seconds of my me speaking (you can also record it from a microphone hooked up to your computer) and I was all set.

After a few minutes, the end result (my "song") was an eeries synth/guitar-march that sounded like an early Residents track. Being a Residents fan, I was actually kind of proud of that. Though I didn't see it at the time, when I logged in again, I found that I could download the file to my computer. It's about 5 minutes long and you can hear a short sample of it here (MP3 format, 124MB).

Beyond your own satisfaction of creating your personalized song, what's going to happen to this material? Well, ol' Pete and the Lifehouse guys might decide to use it for their ongoing project. As they explain:

"If one of your portraits is chosen, it does not mean it is better or worse than any other portrait, just considered by the composers to be technically more suitable to be elaborated into a "bigger" piece, possibly even a song. Although your portrait is controlled by Eel Pie, should we go on to develop or elaborate it you may be invited to further engage and participate. This could lead to us creating commercial applications and if so we plan to reward you with a one-third interest in earnings from your portrait music used in this way."

Wonder what that means in terms of royalties for you if they use it? Oh well, you can go for three "sittings" for the next few weeks and then sign up for a subscription after that to continue in the program. Even if you're tired of hearing your songs, you have to wonder where Pete and his programmers decide to take this project besides the bank (surely, they can make billions off of synth doodles, right?). I'm hopeful that they have some kind of social/technological vision in mind and I can't wait to see what it is. Not exactly classic rock stuff like Who's Next but maybe something interesting and fascinating for us to chew on in this Web 2.0 world.

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