A couple of weeks ago, Jeremy Lillig, director of marketing and public relations for the local Friends of Chamber Music, contacted me to see if I had any interest in talking to the chief architect of the Music Genome Project, which is the driving force behind Pandora Radio. The Friends of Chamber Music was bringing in Nolan Gasser to give a lecture and introduce a concert by the world-renowned St. Lawrence String Quartet at the Folly Theater.
I was familiar with Gasser's work, if not his name. He has been part of the digital-music revolution that has, for years, been changing the way music is made and consumed.
Pandora is a free, online radio station that uses algorithms to cater to individual tastes. If you haven't heard of it, ask your fellow shoppers the next time you're at the Hy-Vee — apparently 200,000 Kansas Citians are among the site's reported 35 million users. That's enough to give local terrestrial stations a run for their ratings.
Big Talking Heads fan? Create a free profile on pandora.com, then type in the band's name. The site breaks down the band's musical style as it begins playing a Talking Heads song: "eclectic rock instrumentation, punk influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation and intricate melodic phrasing." And then Pandora's algorithm-based program begins streaming a series of songs that fits into that style: vintage David Bowie, recent David Byrne, the Cars, Violent Femmes.
Pandora has little regard for such things as genre, popularity or, most of all, coolness factor, which can lead to some jarring moments, such as when my Pandora Peter Gabriel station began playing '90s Sting.
While you're listening, you can train your virtual DJ by clicking the thumbs-up or -down symbol on the Play window. Unlike, say, the local online radio station popfreeradio.com, whose human programmers play whatever they want, Pandora allows users to guide their own experiences, with some restrictions. For instance, due to laws governing radio, listeners are allowed to skip ahead in the playlist only so many times. This makes Pandora different, too, from on-demand sites such as iLike and Lala.
As the fourth employee hired by Pandora and Music Genome Project founder Tim Westergren, Gasser played a huge role in creating the six main music genomes — in order of birth: pop-rock, hip-hop, electronic, jazz, world and classical.
So, last Friday, I got Dr. Gasser (the erstwhile pianist and composer has a doctorate in musicology) in front of my laptop and my local iTunes playlist. I asked him to analyze the Kansas City music that he heard and to suggest what might come next if the songs were on Pandora.
I started him off blind with a Jay McShann recording, "Hootie's Ignorant Oil" from 1941 or '42. "This has Kansas City written all over it," Gasser said, though he had difficulty naming the composer of the "badass honky-tonk." If he were Pandora, he would've played Meade Lux Lewis or Junior Walker next.
After that, I hit him with "The Wimp" by the new boundary-pushing pop act Capybara. Gasser heard sophisticated "harmonically static" or "diatonic" vocal arrangements and a syncopated, New Orleans-style rhythm. Next in the queue: Beck.
Third: a 2003 track from the UMKC-based Balinese dance-music group Gamelan Genta Kasturi. Identifying the Indonesian origin, Gasser noted the hypnotic, syncopated, rhythmic patterns and he also heard a Western influence that was strong enough to warrant the term "fusion."
Likewise, Gasser heard some crossing of styles on the next track, jazz ensemble Trio ALL's cover of Barclay Martin's folk song "Ghost Boat." Gasser heard a blend of open, modal jazz and the "ambient, nonstructured improvisation" that marks new-age music. Next: George Winston or Keith Jarrett.
Track five was Shiner's cover of "Feel Like Makin' Love" by Bad Company. Gasser called out a direct Kurt Cobain influence, particularly in the vocals and the "sparse verse, big chorus" structure, adding that the bass line was raw and intense. Up next: "Not the Bad Company version."
Sixth, I played him the new single from Tech N9ne, the intense "Show Me a God" off the brand-new K.O.D. album. Though not impressed by the beat's instrumentation or "monochromatic" melody of the chorus, Gasser gave Tech props for his flow's syncopation and internal rhyme.
By this point, Gasser looked like he was about to pass out — he had taken the red-eye into town from his home in California that morning — so I let him get to his hotel.
The next night, Gasser's free lecture mostly dissected the St. Lawrence String Quartet's featured pieces using Pandora terms. Audience members had more questions than time allowed. Afterward, people piled into the Folly to see the rapier-quick bows of the St. Lawrence Strings give sublime treatment to the quartet pieces by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Beethoven.
My favorite was the moody, urgent, almost grindcore-intense Mendelssohn "Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80."