Monitoring a radio station in New York City, the composer William Basinski hears the melody, records it. He intends to use a fragment as a loop in an avant-garde music project. The tape goes into a box. It is the 1980s.
It is decades later: the summer of 2001. Digitizing a room full of forgotten material, Basinski finds this loop again. But the tape is old; as it moves through the player, it starts to come apart, the magnetic medium peeling off its plastic backing, more and more with each repetition. Enthralled, Basinski keeps recording as the melody disintegrates before his eyes, his ears.
Standing on his rooftop in Brooklyn, Basinski watches the World Trade Center collapse. It is September 11, 2001. Suddenly, the summer’s recordings have a meaning, a purpose. He titles them The Disintegration Loops and offers them as an elegy for the dead.
I hadn’t heard this before. Listening to it, I found it incredibly moving, haunting, and strangely cathartic.
Robin included a clip in his blog post of an ensemble of computer-generated sequences made from Basinki’s source material. He called it an integration loop, pt. 1.
He also published the sheet music for the looping musical phrase:
Anyone reading the blog post was encouraged to record that phrase on any instrument (or voice) and send it to Robin. I recorded the phrase on mandolin. Jessica recorded it on a muted fiddle.
Robin then assembled all the submissions into a seven minute piece called an integration loop, pt. 2. You can hear Jessica at 3:33. I’m at 4:33.
I very much relate to Robin’s interpration of this creation:
In my imagination, each contribution is a rung in a ladder out of the pit of confusion and loss, all of us both (a) carrying the melody forward and (b) being carried by it, up towards something new, something whole.
By non-personal, I mean one that isn’t directly related to your life; photographs of family members, friends, travel (remember travel?).
Even discounting those photographs, there’s still a vast pool of candidates. There are all the amazing pictures taken by photojournalists like Lee Miller. There’s all the awe-inspiring wildlife photography out there. Then there are the kind of posters that end up on bedroom walls, like Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss.
One of my favourite photographs of all time has music as its subject matter. No, not Johnny Cash flipping the bird, although I believe this picture to be just as rock’n’roll.
This is a photograph of Séamus Ennis and Jean Ritchie. It was probably taken around 1952 or 1953 by Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, when Jean Ritchie and Alan Lomax were in Ireland to do field recordings.
I love everything about it.
Séamus Ennis looks genuinely larger than life (which, by all accounts, he was). And just look at the length of those fingers! Meanwhile Jean Ritchie is equally indominatable, just as much as part of the story as the musician she’s there to record.
Both of them have expressions that convey how intent they are on their machines—Ennis’s uilleann pipes and Ritchie’s tape recorder. It’s positively steampunk!
What a perfect snapshot of tradition and technology meeting slap bang in the middle of the twentieth century.
No, my life’s work is connected to Irish traditional music. Not as a musician, I hasten to clarify—while I derive enormous pleasure from playing tunes on my mandolin, that’s more of a release than a vocation.
My real legacy, it turns out, is being the creator and caretaker of The Session, an online community and archive dedicated to Irish traditional music. I might occassionally mention it here, but only when it’s related to performance, accessibility, or some other front-end aspect. I’ve never really talked about the history, meaning, and purpose of The Session.
I’ve been huffduffing episodes of this podcast for quite a while now. It’s really quite excellent. If you’re at all interested in Irish traditional music, the interviews with the likes of Kevin Burke, John Carty, Liz Carroll and Catherine McEvoy are hard to beat.
So imagine my surprise when they contacted me to ask me to chat and play some tunes! It really was an honour.
I was also a bit of guinea pig. Normally they’d record these kinds of intimate interviews face to face, but what with The Situation and all, my chat was the first remotely recorded episode.
I’ve been on my fair share of podcasts—most recently the Design Systems Podcast—but this one was quite different. Instead of talking about my work on the web, this focussed on what I was doing before the web came along. So if you don’t want to hear me talking about my childhood, give this a miss.
But if you’re interested in hearing my reminisce and discuss the origin and evolution of The Session, have a listen. The chat is interspersed with some badly-played tunes from me on the mandolin, but don’t let that put you off.
COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.
It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.
But it’s not the same though, is it?
I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”
It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.
Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.
I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”
It was my birthday recently. I’m a firm believer in the idea that birthday celebrations should last for more than 24 hours. A week is the absolute minimum.
For the day itself, I did indeed indulge in a most luxurious evening out with Jessica at The Little Fish Market in Hove (on the street where we used to live!). The chef, Duncan Ray, is an absolute genius and his love for all things fish-related shines through in his magnificent dishes.
But to keep the celebrations going, we also went on a weekend away to Galway, where I used to live decades ago. It was a quick trip but we packed in a lot. I joked at one point that it felt like one of those travel articles headlined with “36 hours in someplace.” I ran the numbers and it turned out we were in Galway for 41 hours, but I still thought it would be fun to recount events in the imperative style of one of those articles…
Saturday, February 29th
The 3:30pm train from Dublin will get you into Galway just before 6pm. The train station is right on the doorstep of Loam, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you’ve made your reservation. Enjoy a seven course menu of local and seasonal produce. Despite the quality of the dishes, you may find the overall experience is a little cool, and the service a touch over-rehearsed.
You’ll be released sometime between 8:30pm and 9pm. Stroll through Eyre Square and down Shop Street to the Jury’s Inn, your hotel. It’s nothing luxurious but it’s functional and the location is perfect. It’s close to everything without being in the middle of the noisy weekend action. The only noise you should hear is the rushing of the incredibly fast Corrib river outside your window.
Around 9:30pm, pop ‘round to Dominick Street to enjoy a cocktail in the America Village Apothecary. It’s only open two nights a week, and it’s a showcase of botanicals gathered in Connemara. Have them make you a tasty conconction and then spend time playing guess-that-smell with their specimen jars.
By 10:30pm you should be on your way round the corner to The Crane Bar on Sea Road. Go in the side entrance and head straight upstairs where the music session will be just getting started. Marvel at how chilled out it is for a Saturday night, order a pint, and sit and listen to some lovely jigs’n’reels. Don’t forget to occassionally pester one of the musicians by asking “What was that last tune called? Lovely set!”
Sunday, March 1st
Skip the hotel breakfast. Instead, get your day started with a coffee from Coffeewerk + Press. Get that coffee to go and walk over to Ard Bia at Nimmos, right at the Spanish Arch. Get there before it opens at 10am. There will already be a line. Once you’re in, order one of the grand brunch options and a nice big pot of tea. The black pudding hash will set you up nicely.
While the weather is far clearer and sunnier than you were expecting, take the opportunity to walk off that hearty brunch with a stroll along the sea front. That’ll blow out the cobwebs.
When the cold gets too much, head back towards town and duck into Charlie Byrne’s, the independent bookshop. Spend some time in there browsing the shelves and don’t leave without buying something to remember it by.
By 1pm or so, it’s time for some lunch. This is the perfect opportunity to try the sushi at Wa Cafe near the harbour. They have an extensive range of irrestistable nigiri, so just go ahead and get one of everything. The standouts are the local oyster, mackerel, and salmon.
From there, head to Tigh Cóilí for the 2pm session. Have a Guinness and enjoy the tunes.
Spend the rest of the afternoon strolling around town. You can walk through the market at St. Nicholas Church, and check out the little Claddagh ring museum at Thomas Dillon’s—the place where you got your wedding rings at the close of the twentieth century.
If you need a pick-me-up, get another coffee from Coffeewerk + Press, but this time grab a spot at the window upstairs so you can watch the world go by outside.
By 6pm, you’ll have a hankering for some more seafood. Head over to Hooked on Henry Street. Order a plate of oysters, and a cup of seafood chowder. If they’ve got ceviche, try that too.
Walk back along the canal and stop in to The Salt House to sample a flight of beers from Galway Bay Brewery. There’ll probably be some live music.
With your appetite suitably whetted, head on over to Cava Bodega for some classic tapas. Be sure to have the scallops with black pudding.
The evening session at Tigh Cóilí starts at 8:30pm on a Sunday so you can probably still catch it. You’ll hear some top-class playing from the likes of Mick Conneely and friends.
And when that’s done, there’s still time to catch the session over at The Crane.
Monday, March 2nd
After a nice lie-in, check out of the hotel and head to McCambridge’s on Shop Street for some breakfast upstairs. A nice bowl of porridge will set you up nicely for the journey back to Dublin.
If you catch the 11am train, you’ll arrive in Dublin by 1:30pm—just enough time to stop off in The Winding Stair for some excellent lunch before heading on to the airport.
Aer Lingus flies daily from Gatwick to Dublin. Dublin’s Heuston Station has multiple trains per day going to Galway.
Then there were the usual benefits that come with speaking at international conferences like An Event Apart and Beyond Tellerrand. I got to visit interesting places, eat excellent food, and meet good people.
Not everything was rosy. There were some sad life events for friends and family. And of course the whole political situation here in the UK has been just awful in 2019.
So onwards to 2020. I need to remind myself that many things are going well in the world but it can be hard to keep that in mind. At a local—nay, parochial—level, there’s a good chance that 2020 will deliver a hard Brexit. I have no faith in the competence or motivations of the current government to do otherwise (I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to stay in this country if it falls apart). And at the global scale, our attempts to mitigate the climate crisis are proceeding too slowly.
That’s something I need to take more personal responsibility for in 2020: fewer plane journeys, more trains, and more carbon offsetting.
Ultimately, it’s a fairly arbitrary moment in time but I do like to pause for a moment and look back at the year that’s just been. For all its faults, I have happy memories. I’m healthy. I played lots of music. I ate well. I spent time with friends and family.
I look forward to more of that in the third decade of the 21st century.
I feel my trajectory as a musician maps to the trajectory of the web industry. The web is still young. We’re all still figuring stuff out and we’re all eager to get better. In our eagerness to get better, we’re reaching for more complexity. More complex abstractions, build processes, and tools. Because who wants to be bored playing in 4/4 when you can be playing in 7/16?
I hope we in the web field will arrive at the same realization that I did as a musician: complexity is not synonymous with quality.
As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.
This pagination pattern shows up all over the site: lists of what’s new, search results, and more. I turned on VoiceOver and I was able to reproduce the problem straight away.
Wherever the pagination pattern appears, there are “previous” and “next” links, marked up with the appropriate rel="prev" and rel="next" attributes. Well, apparently past me thought it would be clever to add some ARIA attributes in there too. My thinking must’ve been something like this:
Those links control the area of the page with the search results.
That area of the page has an ID of “results”.
I should add aria-controls="results" to those links.
That was the problem …which is kind of weird, because VoiceOver isn’t supposed to have any support for aria-controls. Anyway, once I removed that attribute from the links, everything worked just fine.
Just as the solution last time was to remove the aria-atomic attribute on the updated area, the solution this time was to remove the aria-controls attribute on the links that trigger the update. Maybe this time I’ll learn my lesson: don’t mess with ARIA attributes you don’t understand.
A beautiful audio and visual history of the Lomax’s journey across:
On March 31 1939, when John and Ruby Lomax left their vacation home on Port Aransas, Texas, they already had some idea of what they would encounter on their three-month, 6,502 mile journey through the southern United States collecting folk songs.
I’m back from the west of Ireland. I was sorry to leave. I had a wonderful, music-filled time.
I’m not sure why it took me a decade and a half to go back, but that’s what I did last week. Myself and Jessica once again immersed ourselves in Irish tradtional music. I’ve written up a trip report over on The Session.
On the face of it, fifteen years is a long time. Last time I made the trip to county Clare, I was taking pictures on a point-and-shoot camera. I had a phone with me, but it had a T9 keyboard that I could use for texting and not much else. Also, my hair wasn’t grey.
But in some ways, fifteen years feels like the blink of an eye.
I spent my mornings at the Willie Clancy Summer School immersed in the history of Irish traditional music, with Paddy Glackin as a guide. We were discussing tradition and change in generational timescales. There was plenty of talk about technology, but we were as likely to discuss the influence of the phonograph as the influence of the internet.
Outside of the classes, there was a real feeling of lengthy timescales too. On any given day, I would find myself listening to pre-teen musicians at one point, and septegenarian masters at another.
Now that I’m back in the Clearleft studio, I’m finding it weird to adjust back in to the shorter timescales of working on the web. Progress is measured in weeks and months. Technologies are deemed outdated after just a year or two.
The one bridging point I have between these two worlds is The Session. It’s been going in one form or another for over twenty years. And while it’s very much on and of the web, it also taps into a longer tradition. Over time it has become an enormous repository of tunes, for which I feel a great sense of responsibility …but in a good way. It’s not something I take lightly. It’s also something that gives me great satisfaction, in a way that’s hard to achieve in the rapidly moving world of the web. It’s somewhat comparable to the feelings I have for my own website, where I’ve been writing for eighteen years. But whereas adactio.com is very much focused on me, thesession.org is much more of a community endeavour.
I question sometimes whether The Session is helping or hindering the Irish music tradition. “It all helps”, Paddy Glackin told me. And I have to admit, it was very gratifying to meet other musicians during Willie Clancy week who told me how much the site benefits them.
I think I benefit from The Session more than anyone though. It keeps me grounded. It gives me a perspective that I don’t think I’d otherwise get. And in a time when it feels entirely to right to question whether the internet is even providing a net gain to our world, I take comfort in being part of a project that I think uses the very best attributes of the World Wide Web.
That wrapper also adds some ARIA attributes. The region of the page that will be updated gets an aria-live value of polite. Then, whenever new content is being injected, the same region gets an aria-busy value of true. Once the update is done, the aria-busy value gets changed back to false.
That all seems to work fine, but I was also giving the same region of the page an aria-atomic value of true. My thinking was that, because the whole region was going to be updated with new content from the server, it was safe to treat it as one self-contained unit. But it looks like this is what was causing the problem, especially when I was also adding and removing class values on the region in order to trigger animations. VoiceOver seemed to be getting a bit confused and overly verbose.
I’ve removed the aria-atomic attribute now. True to its name, I’m guessing it’s better suited to small areas of a document rather than big chunks. (If anyone has a good primer on when to use and when to avoid aria-atomic, I’m all ears).
I was glad I was able to find a fix—hopefully one that doesn’t negatively impact the experience in other screen readers. As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.
For me, all of this really highlights the beauty of the web, when everyone is able to contribute to a community like The Session, regardless of what kind of software they may be using. In the tunes section, that’s really helped by the use of ABC notation, as I wrote five years ago:
One of those screen-reader users got in touch with me shortly after joining to ask me to explain what ABC was all about. I pointed them at some explanatory links. Once the format “clicked” with them, they got quite enthused. They pointed out that if the sheet music were only available as an image, it would mean very little to them. But by providing the ABC notation alongside the sheet music, they could read the music note-for-note.
That’s when it struck me that ABC notation is effectively alt text for sheet music!
Then, for those of use who can read sheet music, the text of the ABC notation is automatically turned into an SVG image using the brilliant abcjs. It’s like an enhancement that’s applied, I dunno, what’s the word …progressively.