Monday, March 16, 2009

Philip Glass’s Pencil: The Mind and Technology

Philip Glass recently wrapped up a tour performing an original music set to Leonard Cohen's "Book of Longing" Philip composed a song-cycle for Mr. Cohen's book of poetry and drawings. In addition to being a fan of Mr. Glass and his music, I've always respected the fact he composes music using a pencil. Philip Glass, pencil in hand, blank sheet of paper in front of him sitting at a piano composing original music. To me, this is an absolutely righteous picture of the creative mind balanced with technology. No thought of the pencil running out of led, no concern of the pencil crashing and making him tentative. Just Philip Glass, his imagination, the palette of sounds on the black and whites, and a pencil. It's an example of a human being working at the speed of thought in the right hemisphere of the mind unfettered by technology limitations or frameworks.

The mind is what the brain does and in that rarefied air, a single creative human thought may be the most delicate entity in the universe. If interrupted, it is certainly changed and may be lost forever. I had a discussion with Mr. Glass about that. Whether it is fingers on the black and whites or brushstrokes on canvas, that's the way technology should be balanced with the mind. The user remains spontaneous and unaware of any contrivance or technology. Philip and I both agreed the most important technology is the computer on your shoulders and it should be approached with respect. The piano itself has been a very important piece of technology and should be recognized as such. It is elegant in design and serves as a great model that illustrates how artistic performance can be balanced with a piece of technology for production power.

Michael Riesman is Philip's conductor and technology advisor. He is the producer of nearly every Glass recording ( Riesman is also known as the Music Director of the Philip Glass Ensemble and has an association with the composer dating back to 1974. Michael is a composer and an improvisational performer. Several years ago on a trip to New York City, I sought out Michael at the famous Looking Glass Studios and was given the opportunity to express my views on art and technology. We had several more meetings. Through those conversations I provided Michael with an AMD-based computer to host a virtual grand piano for the upcoming "Book of Longing" tour. I have to say Mr. Riesman gave the AMD gear the most thorough technical evaluation of any musician we have experienced to date. A live musical performance is a mission-critical application as you can well imagine. Resetting a computer while a few thousand people wait is catastrophic. The moment is destroyed. Michael is responsible for the reliability of all the technology used for Mr. Glass’s live performances. He gave our machine many hours of testing before ever considering its use. I'm happy to say the AMD machine was used live on the "Book of Longing" tour for the entirety of its two year run without a single failure. That computer was manufactured by our amazing partners at PCAudioLabs (

I recently had dinner with Michael when the tour came through Austin and we discussed some future collaboration on technology and music.

My mission and that of my team is to help put the human mind back on top of technology particularly within the context of creative endeavors. We want to ensure anything bearing the AMD name arrives as a solution and not a bag of components. We're a platform company now. We use the term Fusion. Fusion is really a philosophy about the way we work in the industry with artists such as Philip Glass and many others. We don't just throw technology at people. We try to understand their creative process so we can provide the best solution. We stand with them all the way and measure our success only on theirs.

If you shut off the television and try to create something, you're in a very small percentile of the population and I salute you. I hope if you do invite technology into your workflow, the emphasis remains on your creativity and never on technology. Technology should behave as unobtrusively as a pencil. I am committed to that view. All of us at AMD are extremely proud to be working with Philip Glass and Michael Riesman.

- Boswell

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dweezil Zappa Wins Grammy® and Orders AMD Room Service

Photo credit: Michael Mesker

Charles Boswell

Dweezil Zappa just won a Grammy® Award recently for Best Rock Instrumental. Tell us about how you’re involved in his work.

I met Dweezil Zappa a number of years ago at an AES convention in LA. I’ve been deeply interested in his father’s music since grade school. Therefore, it was an extreme honor to meet Dweezil and his mother Gail. Dweezil was introduced to me because of his plans to use AMD technology not only to produce his own music, but to take some of his father’s existing stuff from the famous Zappa vault and put those historically important tapes into the digital domain. The vault activity is under the direction of Gail Zappa. Dweezil began using AMD workstations as a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) with our 32-bit technology back in 2002. Since then, the relationship has progressed to where Dweezil is using our very latest quad-core processors and ATI graphics on our Fusion platforms at the legendary UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen) studio founded by his father. Dweezil embarked on the worldwide Zappa Plays Zappa tour in 2007 and that tour has continued into 2009 with several months break here and there. He is using AMD DAWs to record these live shows. The popularity and success of this tour has reaffirmed the global demand for and interest in Frank Zappa’s music. I believe a great deal of the tour’s longevity is attributed to Dweezil’s precise interpretation of his father’s catalog as well as his selection of the current ZPZ lineup. Dweezil is using AMD based Fusion DAWs to mix and master these shows while he’s out on the road and the fans are responding very favorably! These DAWs were manufactured by our excellent friends and partners at PCAudioLabs (

This new AMD addition to the Dweezil Zappa workflow is called the “Room Service Rig” because it is sometimes operated from a hotel room after a show, or possibly on the bus in between shows. We partnered up with our friends over at Dangerous Music ( to make the "Room Service Rig" happen. Dweezil records the shows live, then mixes, masters, and uploads those shows within a few months after a live performance. Dweezil went from zero to sixty on the PC over the course of about 5 months and has really amazed me personally in his ability not to lose focus on the music and falling into a technology morass. The chief role of my team at AMD is to work directly with the artist to insure AMD based technology arrives as a solution and not just benchmark or some other nerd synthetic seal of approval. The technology culture left to its own devices actually has the ability to push or steer the artist out of his/her aesthetic pursuits and lead them down an endless technology highway that ends in the nerd cul-de-sac of disappointment. This process transforms the artist into a technologist with his/her aesthetic oftentimes completely destroyed. This is Global Nerding.

Dweezil just won a Grammy® for Peaches En Regalia, which is a live recording of one of Frank Zappa’s most well known compositions. He is someone who understands that technological solutions should be balanced perfectly with the artist’s performance capability. That’s the way we like to approach all of our artists: we try to balance artistic performance with production power. It’s a different way of looking at technology. We measure success based upon what the artist is able to achieve and not just on some nerd technology attribute. Dweezil’s Grammy® is an example of that principle in action. The Digital Media and Entertainment team at AMD has filmed a couple of shows for Dweezil which we’re working on for several DVDs of live ZPZ material. This is an example of how the AMD Digital Media and Entertainment team engages with the artist. We’re out there with them on tour many times testing our technology on the firing line in terms of video, audio, pre-production, and post production. Everyone on my team is an artist first and foremost. We take the customers perspective because we are all actually customers ourselves. We all use AMD technology in our own productions. This is the Fusion culture at AMD.

- Boswell

Monday, March 9, 2009

An Introduction to the Global Nerding Theory

"While Al Gore trots around the globe talking about chemistry and melting glaciers, Boswell unveils a more subtle planetary trend he calls "Global Nerding". The autistic is being cultivated and favored by the macro economics of the computer industry and results are tangible and devastating. The art of human expression is being limited by the technocracy, not enhanced, as Boswell suggests in his Aesthetic Uncertainty Principle. In the aggregate, the current technology culture is medically incapable of empathy with the consumer and Boswell directly relates that to mindblindness or the single unifying characteristic of all forms of autism."

"High technology has been my Galapagos,” says Boswell.

Simply put, Global Nerding is a planetary trend where mankind willingly or unwittingly adapts to technology rather than demand technology adapt to him. In today’s culture, the nerd is the chief arbiter of taste for the neuro-typical or regular user of technology simply because the nerd both creates the technology and is the first to adopt it. Putting it another way, the nerd is in control of the technology. The macro economics of the high technology industry itself is helping to cultivate these “tech savvy” individuals. Global Nerding is my theory on why technology trends toward being almost unusable and certainly non-intuitive at best. Global Nerding also seeks to explain the planetary effects of nerd culture on language and artistic expression. Global Nerding and The Autistic Planet is my book on this topic. I’m first an artist then a technologist. I’ve spent the last ten years working directly with artists utilizing technology. From that experience I synthesized my theory. I choose to view technology as a tool and not as a religion.

Global Nerding is the force by which social intelligence of the planet is being made extinct or dissipated like the glaciers. That’s fine with me because it’s a continuing source of entertaining new material for my music and films. However, as a user of technology, I demand that it pay more reverential respect for the way I work and think. I believe technology needs to respect everyone in the same way.

My theories on Global Nerding in their most elemental form offer the world an explanation, a medical explanation in fact, of why technology is for the most part non-intuitive and arcane. No one should be surprised, especially those of you who have worked in the high-tech industry.

A simplistic example of a subtle effect of Global Nerding is the advent and instantaneous acceptance of MP3. MP3 is a compression technology developed to overcome a technology limitation: storage and bandwidth. It was happily lapped up by teenage America because it allows people to store their vast libraries and share their music. That’s all good, except the fidelity of MP3 is terrible. We willingly traded convenience for quality. I believe it to be a conditioned mindset that has pushed people to make aesthetic judgments based upon only what the technology will allow. I categorically reject that notion. The neuro-typical user says to himself, “I’ve never been this happy, I have 5,000 of these lo-fi recordings and I can share this amazing art with my pals.” I think the same thing can be said about the PC; it’s slow and cumbersome, and we’re saying, "I love this computer because I only had to reset it once today." We must have a very low opinion of ourselves and the technology if we’re in love with this stuff. These kinds of lowered expectations are an effect of Global Nerding.

I believe the “nerderati” have been deciding what I might like and providing these “frameworks” that I utterly reject. I contend that the nerds cannot empathize with end users so their frameworks are flawed and presumptuous. I don’t need frameworks, my framework is infinity, for my mind. Global Nerding itself is a framework, the nerds creating a utopian society for their own kind. I reject both them and their vision.

I grew up in the boyhood home of Walt Disney in the Midwest (Marceline, MO). Walt is known for a number of things, but his most genius legacy is Disneyland. It is a unique model: you don’t see the technology, it’s under the street. Regular people are above the street enjoying the experience while the technology and the technology culture are completely invisible. I am an advocate of Cloud Computing because it will help usher in a Disney-like view of invisible technology. The complexity will vanish in the cloud just like Walt hiding it below the street in Disneyland. The complexity of the technology will reside server-side and the end user experience will become more immersive and interactive with less technology on the client side.

For more information on Global Nerding And The Autistic Planet, check out the Anderson Vision interview.

- Boswell