February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Monthly Archives: January 2006

AFX Freebie MP3

Not every musician has a website or a myspace.com page, not even otherwise digitally astute musicians. Some of the most prominent electronic acts, including Aphex Twin and Autechre, have no specific home on the web. Aphex’s disinclination carries over to the website of his record label, Rephlex, which is a decidedly low-key affair. Go to rephlex.com and you’ll usually just see a string of recent release notices in an alien-green uniform-width font against a black background, with all the nuance of a late-1980s personal computer. If you’re lucky, the occasional album cover be added for spice. It’s a web page in the most literal sense. That page is all there is: no subpages, no RSS feed.

This ambivalence to self-promotion belies the label’s activity. It regularly spews amazing music, with a broader scope than its laptop-fixated brethren. Recent and upcoming releases include Pierre Bastien’s Pop, featuring a quasi-orchestra of Bastien’s handcrafted instruments, and Chosen Lords by Aphex Twin pseudonym AFX, a CD set of 11 tracks from his vinyl-only Analord series.

At this moment, a free MP3 is available for stream and download from the top of the Rephlex home page. Aside from a file name, “boxenergy4remix1,” there’s no information, not even in the file’s album, artist or author data fields (MP3). It appears to be AFX‘s wildly exaggerated remix of DJ Pierre‘s acid-house fave, “Box Energy,” from the 2 Remixes by AFX single released five years ago.

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Janet Cardiff @ MOMA (NYC)

During a trip to New York, over this recent New Year’s, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, primarily to take in the Janet Cardiff sound art piece from 2001, “40 Part Motet. A Reworking of Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis.” Cardiff has a huge white room to herself, essentially a gallery within the museum proper. The classic blank space contains 40 freestanding black speakers suspended on tripods, hugging the walls of the rectangular room. The speakers are loosely set in eight groups of five each. The piece is 11 minutes long, with a three-minute break in between each playing. It repeats continuously throughout the day. You can bring a good book and stay awhile, but you’ll miss all the action if you sit still.

What one hears is a motet written in 1575 by Thomas Tallis for Queen Elizabeth (I) on the occasion of her 40th birthday, but this is more than just an audiophile’s dream of classical immersion. Cardiff recorded each of the motet’s 40 parts on a separate track. “40 Part Motet” plays them simultaneously, one speaker per track, to be taken in en masse or individually. One can stand, or sit, in the center of the room and experience the piece as a performance in the round. Or one can move amid the speakers, hearing the piece from the performers’ point of view, focusing on single voices within a crowded field.

The voices are anything but homogenous. Each is distinct from the others, surprisingly so, with personality that evaporates in the mixing of parts when heard from afar. (And I heard at least one cough when I was standing by a single speaker. During the silent period, museum-goers entered into the room and put their ears up to the speakers, perhaps witnessing some of the chatter that preceded the recording session.) The temptation is to face the speakers head on, like the windblown guy in the Maxell advertisement, but it can be just as interesting to stand with the back of one’s head to two or three speakers, looking into the circle, to gain a sense of what it might be like for a member of the choir. I had one anxious flashback to singing with my own choir back in high school, to struggling to keep my place amid the various parts. Listening to “40 Part Motet” as sung by a single person is a bit like watching a Nascar race from a camera in one car’s cockpit.

The experience of listening in a museum keeps your ears, and your eyes, open for other sound elsewhere in the same building. The closest counterpoint at the MOMA to Cardiff’s “40 Part Motet” during my visit might have been a video installation by Dieter Roth. In his “Solo Scenes,” stacks of small video monitors, 131 in all, show continuous footage of Roth recorded in several locations during the final year of his life, between 1997 and 1998, as he just went about his daily routine: sorting through files, reading in bed, making a meal. What strikes you more than anything is how small a portion of his time was spent actually making art, unless, of course, you allow that the video installation had managed to transform all of his moments, waking and sleeping, into art. In any case, the way in which Roth’s “Solo Scenes” breaks a single subject, a man’s life, into over 100 constituent parts feels like an alternate take on Cardiff’s meticulous investigation of a single work.

Elsewhere in the museum, in a small room (a closet, really), set aside for Ilya Kabakov‘s claustrophobia-inducing installation “The Man Who Flew into His Picture,” the following posted statement by the artist commented on how the piece’s viewers contributed an aural context to the work itself: “Let others speak. They fill up the room with their voices, their discordant noise sounds in one’s ears, they are heard from outside and from within it.” That’s the case for traditional visual art, but in Cardiff’s “40 Part Motet” room, everyone did their best to remain silent. (More info at moma.org.)

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Live Oliveros & Hutchinson MP3s

Let us now praise generous podcasts, especially those featuring original, otherwise unavailable content. The Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, which is currently hosting monthly concerts, has two archival performances up in its newly launched podcast series. Both are time-warping ventures into tension and release, and into the more languorous realm of group improvisation.

A November 7, 2003, piece by Brenda Hutchinson, part of a performance by the Vorticella quartet, teams Hutchinson on electronically enabled “long tube” with multi-instrumentalist Krys Bobroski (notably French horn and glass harmonica), cellist Erin Espeland and percussionist Karen Stackpole (MP3). At the opening, Hutchinson can be heard explaining the use of triggers in her set up. The group engages in a kind of ensemble call’n’response, ranging from sinuous moments of amorphous chaos to exclamatory eruptions.

A March 9, 2001, piece teams Deep Listening guru and avant-accordion player Pauline Oliveros with koto player Shoko Hikage and trombonist Toyoji Tomita (calling themselves the Ghost Dance Trio) for nearly half an hour of beautifully sustained passages of throaty drones, mixed with excited periods of sympathetic interplay (MP3).

More on the Meridian Gallery at meridiangallery.org. Subscribe to the podcast here. The Gallery will host Carl Stone in a solo show on February 8 (“using freshly minted field recordings from Japan and Thailand”). Let’s hope it, too, results in a podcast.

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Crashing by Design

One of electronic music's great live performers, Thomas Dimuzio talks about improvisation, music education and his longtime collaborator: feedback.

Noise regularly becomes sound art in the hands of Thomas Dimuzio. But contrary to appearances, the pursuit of the N word is not an intrinsically chaotic one. Here in Dimuzio’s home studio, on a high hill in San Francisco’s Sunset District, he must first isolate and eliminate certain noises before he creates his own. The small studio, a windowless room within a room on his house’s ground floor, contains racks of equipment, stand-alone instruments, noisemakers, the requisite lava lamp, and a broad mixing board. The Apple G4 that powers his system, however, is relegated, courtesy of some precisely drilled holes and a fair amount of insulation, to the other side of the wall.

This audiophilic architectural detail might surprise people who know Dimuzio from his recordings, such as his 1989 solo album, Headlock, and 2002′s Uncertain Symmetry, a collaboration with Arcane Device’s David Lee Myers. These are not albums with a particular emphasis on the purity of silence. These are albums on which all sounds are contorted. Now, Dimuzio doesn’t simply twist sounds until they become unrecognizable. In his music, the twisting becomes the performance — one listens to him like one watches fireworks, not for a single frozen instance of beauty, but for the way the beauty unfolds over time.

The pyrotechnics metaphor isn’t haphazard. When Dimuzio talks about noise, as he does often, particularly about feedback, he talks about it the way a firefighter talks about fire, with that familiar undertone of respect and caution. “I find feedback really interesting,” he says, “because it’s really alive. You can push it with the controllers I’ve assigned, and it keeps you on your toes, because it does certain things, but you can’t really predict what it’s going to do.”

He makes this statement in the process of talking about his life in music, about growing up in Pennsylvania and weaning himself off progressive rock (“Even in high school bands, we were pursuing improvisation”), about studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (“I realized early on that I hated the place and I wasn’t going to stay there, but made a lot of good friends”) and about relocating to San Francisco, with its welcoming out-sound community. What began as a single conversation before a gig with fellow local electronicists Scott Alford and Chris Fitzpatrick at the 21 Grand, a venue in nearby Oakland, subsequently expanded to include two evenings at his home studio. Dimuzio’s generosity with his time provided a first-hand experience of a demeanor that’s helped him become one of electronic music’s most gregarious collaborative improvisers. As he puts it simply: “I would rather play than not play.”

Random Acts

The unpredictable is the core of Dimuzio’s work, not only due to his embrace of feedback, but because of his emphasis on improvisation and collaboration. In all the creative situations where he finds himself, one thing is constant: he welcomes an unknown. That may be a random sound source, an unmapped compositional territory, or another performer’s point of view, but in every case he willfully relinquishes control.

Asked to talk about improvisation, Dimuzio replies with characteristic thoughtfulness: “In my eyes, someone plays that first note with intention, and the music can sort of take over and push it to where it needs to go. Everyone has to be on the same level, not necessarily have the same understanding of what music is, but just be there, in the moment, not necessarily thinking about what you just played, or what you should play next.”

Around the San Francisco Bay Area, such openness has helped make Dimuzio a ubiquitous live-concert presence. Since moving here from Boston in 1996, he has performed regularly, more often than not in cahoots with another musician, whether local heroes, like Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) or the duo Matmos, or a visiting luminary, like Anla Courtis (of Reynols) or Nick Didkovsky (aka Dr. Nerve). Some of these team-ups take on the feel of a long-term partnership, like Dimmer, which pairs him with Joseph Hammer, the tape-loop virtuoso, or the extensive touring he’s done with Chris Cutler, the legendary British drummer from Henry Cow. (On several occasions they have performed as a trio with another Cow alumni, Fred Frith, currently teaching at Mills College in Oakland.)

Says Cutler of his experiences with Dimuzio, “As an improviser, he is both modest and intelligent — and completely reliable. All his effort goes into making the music work and not into making his own playing shine. It’s a great quality. And he is completely on top of his technology: sounds follow Tom’s intention, they don’t lead. At the same time he gives them time to evolve and breathe. Add heightened sensitivity and a subtle ear and the result is musical depth.” And, says Cutler, “He has ears like a bat.”

Other Dimuzio gigs have the passion, and the risk, of a one-night stand — a show at the San Francisco Art Institute with laptop-demolition specialist Blevin Blectum, in a series hosted by Matmos’ M.C. Schmidt; a duet with fragile-sound expert Michael Thomas Jackson at the seventh annual Activating the Medium Festival. His activities are charted in detail on his website, thomasdimuzio.com, and on gench.com, the portal of his studio and label. A recent double-album, Mono::Poly, documents his live resume, including performances with Cutler and Frith, Arford, Wobbly, Sensorband’s Atau Tanaka, and even the famed Scratch Piklz turntablist DJ QBert. (A sign of his entrenchment in local music, he’s even begun working with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart.)

In almost all these performances, one key ingredient is that Dimuzio takes a live feed from his partner and works it into his banks of loopers and sound manipulators. Says Wobbly, who has experienced this on numerous occasions, “Thomas is always capturing and throwing back dozens of little transformed mirror images, augmenting and filling in the sounds I’m sending out — although at the same time, what he does with those sounds is always very personalized and distinctive; he makes the sounds his. Even in a concert where his sole source is the other performer, there’s no mistaking his presence.”

No matter the circumstance, Dimuzio’s emphasis in collaboration is on balance: “Someone’s influencing their will, so I try not to impose — I mean, there are points where I will be over the top, but I think it’s in the context of the music, not because I want to play something loud right now.”

His silent studio notwithstanding, Dimuzio embraces the peculiarities of each new enterprise. When he performed as part of Aaron Ximm’s Field Effects concert series, held in an old industrial loft in downtown San Francisco, he put a microphone on the roof, better to catch the wind. When his Dimmer duo played the Luggage Store Music Gallery, which has great view of San Francisco’s noisy Market Street, he invited the noise in: “Why not embrace it, you know? We had the mic out the window, and I thought that worked well, because it was feeding both of our rigs, and then each of our rigs were feeding one another.”

What did that fishing expedition yield? “It’s mostly traffic noise,” says, “but you do hear conversations, errant comments and such. I enjoy that, because again, like feedback, where there’s this element of, you sort of have to go with it, you can’t necessarily control it, and factoring that in to something that you’re sampling and processing in real time, it’s just nice. It just throws a curveball every now and then. It’s interesting, actually, to mix into a sampler in real time. It’s bizarre. It’s taken me a while to get used to it, and get over it.”

Dimuzio is more than happy to talk about equipment, but he downplays the constituent parts. “This gear is nothing but an instrument to me,” he says, by which he means his rig of sampler, mixer, sound sources, loopers, etc. “It’s taken a while to evolve this instrument to where it’s at, and I’d love to take it so much further, but there’s only so much you can do, not being an inventor, not having the resources, or the know how. I just like to abuse and use this stuff.”

Abuse is both his avocation and his vocation. By night he plays live in the city, or on tour, or holes up in his studio. By day, he works at Digidesign, whose Pro Tools is the industry standard in audio production. What does he do there? “I break Pro Tools,” he says with a smile. “I do quality assurance testing. I break Pro Tools for a living, beat the hell out of it.” He isn’t the only Bay Area musician employed by Digidesign. Wobbly works there, as also do Craig McFarland (M.I.R.V.), Larry Thrasher (Psychic TV, Big Swab, Thee Majesty) and Tim Walters (Doubtful Place), among others.

It is this work that brought him to San Francisco in the first place. After opting out of Berklee, he resorted to a strategy that many a film-school grad has utilized: education by plastic. “I just got some credit cards and bought gear,” he says. “I’d already amassed a bit of student loans and debt, so I bought an eight track and a sampler and just sort of went from there.” He ended up working for a small firm (OSC) that produced Deck II, an early audio-production tool, and when that company was acquired, he was relocated to the Bay Area.

Professional Catalyst

It’s a Saturday night in mid-February 2005, and Dimuzio is hosting a recording session in his home studio, Gench. Here he’s done work for labels like Apshodel, Cuneiform and Cutler’s ReR, and artists like Scot Jenerik, Tom Cora and Rova Saxophone Quartet. Upstairs his wife, Anne, prepares fresh biscuits and cornbread. Gumbo simmers on the stove. Down in the basement, today’s client, Mark Hosler, a founding member of the group Negativland, is working with Dimuzio to put the finishing touches on something Hosler never expected to be doing in the first place: a solo album, complete with an actual love song.

Hosler explains that the sequencing of his album, which will contain a planned 18 songs, has proven difficult. All albums by Negativland, the culture-jamming specialists who have blazed a parodic trail of copyright-challenging audio collages for a quarter century, are concept albums, and each album’s concept has determined the order of the songs. In contrast, this strange beast, this solo record, to be titled Thigmotactic, is concept-free, just “a bunch of songs,” as Hosler puts it, that he’s written and constructed over the years. As Thig currently stands, it’ll open with “Richard Nixon Died Today,” a solemn piece in which his singing overlays quotes from the disgraced former president. Other cuts include “Bulbs Flickering,” which has the feel of pop minimalism, and that love song, titled “Extra Sharp Pencils.” (The album is due out on Negativland’s label, Seeland, which is also releasing another Dimuzio-helmed project, Poptastic a mix of post-production tomfoolery and, of all things, teen-pop lampoons, the brainstorm of musician Chris Fitzpatrick.)

Hosler first approached Dimuzio to master his record, but the relationship flowered into something more collaborative. Hosler recorded the dozen and a half songs by himself and provided them to Dimuzio. Along with each track came a set of typewritten notes, descriptions of things Hosler wanted done with (or to) the tracks. Dimuzio says that he carefully read the notes, considered them, dismissed almost all of it, and proceeded to add to each track what he thought best suited it. Thus, “Extra Sharp Pencils” features an effluence of upbeat digitalia in its second half, a flourish of pixel dust that takes an unusual item (an irony-free love song by a member of Negativland) and ups the ante, turning it into an irony-free, radio-friendly pop song.

In a sense, what Dimuzio has done with Hosler’s solo recordings differs little from the majority of Dimuzio’s collaborations. He has plugged Hosler’s stuff (i.e., a sound source) into his own bank of equipment, processed some of that original material and added a bit of his own. Hosler is nothing if not receptive to Dimuzio’s contributions. At least on this evening, whenever a sound element is interrogated — French horns, keyboards, noise, layered vocals — Hosler’s instinct is to increase its prominence. The only exception is a high-pitched whine on a track titled “Critique,” which Hosler asks him to remove, suggesting that only his canine fans would miss it. Hosler also jokes about having to occasionally excise the very sound that first attracted him to Dimuzio, what he calls “the Dimuzio haze,” a mash of din that he imitates with a moist Bronx cheer.

The Long View

Dimuzio takes a break from his studio and heads upstairs to the living room. It features an enormous single-pane window that frames an expanse of heavily populated South San Francisco and, further still, the Pacific Ocean. He’s come a long way from Boston, from Berklee, from an institutional mindset that at best served as a sounding board for his distinct and contrasting opinions: firmly held thoughts about technology, composition and improvisation that are the bedrock of his life and work. The room’s long view confirms a sense of distance and time.

Upstairs, in this carpeted space, there are no feedback machines, no computers — just an old Wurlitzer electric piano, his first instrument, circa 1979, and a small assortment of guitars. There isn’t any recording equipment up here, and its notable absence, combined with the vista and a couple of soft couches, reinforces the space’s role as a refuge from the studio.

Asked about the guitars, Dimuzio relates an anecdote about a much-loved ’64 Fender Stratocaster he babysat for a friend, Sensorband’s Tanaka, but the longer he talks about the instrument, the more it becomes clear that he’s talking about tone and timbre. Even amid these six-strings, he’s talking texture and feel, not composition and song structure. “I come from playing notes,” he says, reconciling these traditional tools and the noises that emanate from his studio. “I like to play notes. It’s just not something you hear a lot of in my music.”

The above profile originally appeared, in lightly edited form, in the fourth issue of e/i magazine in 2005 (more information at ei-mag.com).

Related links: Thomas Dimuzio's website, thomasdimuzio.com; website of Dimuzio's studio, Gench: gench.com.

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Tangents (Buddha, Syrianna, Mieville)

Quick Links, News and Good Reads: (1) Apparently this (link) is a half-hour video of the duo FM3 (Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian) playing chess with their Buddha Machines at the De Appel museum of contemporary art in Amsterdam, November 2005 (via chaile.org). The sound quality isn’t great, but eventually people shush and the music makes itself heard. … (2) Deep in the recent NAMM audio convention, one blogger noted a particularly cool trailer for DJ tools (video), for the Eclectic Breaks Pro X Fade (via skratchworx.com). … (3) Matmos talks to the camera for 40 minutes, including snippets of live performances, about teaching snails to play the theremin, swapping out a balloon for cow’s uterus and more (brainwashed.com), in advance of the April 2006 release of The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast. … (4) The publisher Continuum has announced (at 33third.blogspot.com) the next 21 volumes in its 33 1/3 series of small books devoted to individual albums, among them Nine Inch NailsPretty Hate Machine (by Daphne Carr) and Brian Eno‘s Another Green World (by Geeta Dayal). Also listed, 20 Jazz Funk Greats (presumably the Throbbing Gristle album) by Matmos member Drew Daniel (via lacunae.com). … (5) The retailer eMusic.com announced in a January 23 press release that its sales would now be included in the Nielsen SoundScan ratings. EMusic has in its catalog a much wider array of electronic-oriented record labels than does Apple’s iTunes Music Store. … (6) “Weird Noises That Blossom Into Symphonies,” from the occasional Circuits section in the New York Times, on new fangled instruments, including the tenori-on, by Toshio Iwai. Also mentioned: Perry R. Cook, who apparently created a MIDI controller for, of all people, trad jazz man Wynton Marsalis; Don Buchla and Shawn Greenlee (nytimes.com). … From engadget.com: (7) musical uses for a castoff tool from a video game (link), and (8) a newfangled instrument puts on airs (link).

… Score Keeper: (1) Interview with Alexandre Desplat (soundtrack.net), Syriana score composer: “Also, almost all of the string patterns are doubled by synthesized electronic sounds that blur the strings. The concept was to blend all the sounds, so that no single sound would be too clear or defined.” … IMDB.com has (2) John Powell attached to Watchmen, the third X-Men and the next Bourne Identity movie (he’s done the first two in that series) and (3) Jeff Rona attached to Hellion and a TV series called Brotherhood.

… Select New Releases: These new release lists are less than useful, given the broad range of music released each week. Still, it’s a look at what’s imminent. Names of labels and artists link to webpages, where available and, of course, known. … (1) Coldcut‘s Sound Mirrors (Ninja Tune), with guests John Matthias, Roots Manuva, Annette Peacock, Robert Owens, Andrew (Fog) Broder and others. … (2) DJ Cam‘s Revisited By…, with remixes by DJ Premier, Thievery Corporation and others (Recall).

… Disquiet Heavy Rotation: (1) Pierre Bastien‘s Pop (Rephlex) will find a home in the collection of anyone who prizes the rickety sang-froid of Kid Koala’s turntablism or of Benoit Charest’s music for the film Les Triplettes de Belleville. Like both those gentlemen, Bastien uses humble materials to produce music that suggests Europe at its most elegantly dilapidated, but in place of Koala’s dusty vinyl and Charest’s musical kitchen appliances, Bastien has crafted his own small orchestra of makeshift instruments. His inventions take on a life of their own. Just listen to the muffled, slack-jaw howls that punctuate “Pep.” It’s the sort of sound that keeps you up nights. … (2) Producer DJ Muggs (Cypress Hill, House of Pain) and rapper GZA team up, or face off, on the recent Grandmasters, and a 12″ captures two GZA-free slices of Muggs’ background hip-hop, both laced with electric guitar. The A-side, “All in Together Now,” is a bare-boned layering of beats, with a touch of late-1980s rhythms that sound a bit out of place amid the track’s digital clarity. The keeper is the richer B-side, “General Principals,” on which a sad-toned guitar part suggests a hip-hop Ennio Morricone. … (3) Disquiet Downstream entry of the week: two sound-collage MP3s from Tyondai Braxton, of the rising math-punk supergroup Battles (link).

… Quote of the Week: From the short story “Details,” in China Mieville‘s collection Looking for Jake, published last year: “As if the notes of all the different noises in the house fell into a chance meeting, and sounded like more than dissonance. The shuts and bangs and cries of fear combined in a sudden audible illusion like another presence.”

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