My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's 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.
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Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Monthly Archives: June 2006

Wobbly’s 1,000-Year MP3

Somewhere there’s a mega-traditionalist who views the birth of polyphony in Western music as the start of its downfall, not just of Western music but of the West. With the mixing of voices came the opportunity for confusion, chaos and conflict, in place of the uniformity of single melodic lines (and of devoted, obedient theological thought, or at least the illusion thereof).

To hear a mind-bogglingly broad DJ set by Wobbly consisting almost entirely of vocal music, “Thousand Year Choir” (MP3), polyphony was a kind of implicit precursor of sampling, as multiple voices began to quote and reference each other in a form that grew increasingly center-less as composition evolved. That rudimentary folk music per se persists in various cultures to this day, whether as continuous cultural practice or backwards-glancing tradition, is no contradiction; if anything, the persistence of ritual singing reinforces the very simultaneity that enables Wobbly’s many-layered performance.

Of course, given the antipathy in some circles toward sampling, these two considerations of polyphony may not be unrelated.

In any case, Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) plays out this centuries-spanning process in a nearly hour-long mix, recorded live in his home on three sound sources (allowing for two post-production edits, he explains), that begins with early-music heroes Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin, makes its way around the globe, stopping in Japan and Kenya, before leaping into the recent present, courtesy of Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Female voices are particularly well represented, including those of Yoko Ono, Diamanda Galas and Mystere des Voix Bulgares. Though the overlays here often sound unprecedented in their imaginative leaps, they do bring to mind the pop-Gregorian antics of Enigma and the pre-Columbian-flavored mass that Ennio Morricone scored for the film The Mission.

When Wobbly DJ’d at the opening of the Matthew Barney exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last week, he did a four-player take on this choral continuum, albeit with his own electronic effects and some more pop-minded reference points. (Full list of the contents of the “Thousand Year Choir” MP3 available at Wobbly’s website, detritus.net/wobbly.)

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Operational Silence

I’m taking the next week off for a little vacation. There’s one thing I might upload at some point, but otherwise the site will be silent until July 9 or 10.

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Matmos-KFW Improv MP3

In a slight variation on the old pop-Zen koan, what is the sound of three electronic musicians group-improvising? The query arises from a listen to a recently posted live trio set by Matmos (aka Drew Daniel and M.C. Schmidt) and Keith Fullerton Whitman (MP3). Given that any laptop worth its chipset can multitask (er, multitrack) at the gesture of a mouse or the click of a button, how does one discern who is up to what when three individuals funnel their sound files into a single stream?

As always, Whitman is ready with some descriptive phrases himself, referring to the MP3 quarter-jokingly as a “mega-collaboration” in a note to his email-announcement list: “it’s a big mess of clicky stereo freakouts,” he writes, “wandering sub-bass, muttered vocal-drones, atonal bleeps, completely gorgeous filtered drones, zonked modular-synth, and musique concrète with a nice almost berlin-school ending worthy of 32:05 of your time.” Still, for all those specifics, it doesn’t quite hammer home who is doing what over the course of that half hour. As with any koan, of course, the answer is in the question. What distinguishes the track is precisely how ambiguous the interplay is, especially as it gathers coherence, closing in an expanding rainbow of burr-laced consonance (that’s the “berlin-school” feel to which Whitman alludes).

The file was first made available as a podcast courtesy of dublab.com, which even in the broad field of vaguely avant-podcasts (out-casts?) has a particularly stellar catalog, including previous entries by folk-drone hero Greg Davis (a frequent Whitman collaborator), slapdash hip-hop maven Daedelus and the thrifty tinkerers in the Books. More info on the musicians at brainwashed.com/matmos and keithfullertonwhitman.com.

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Eno-Wright Discussion MP3

Brian Eno named the Long Now Foundation, the San Francisco-based organization that promotes long-term thinking. How long term? The Foundation writes years as a series of five digits, thus suggesting a continuity well beyond the sort imposed by a mere four digits, or so the theory goes. Thus it was this past Monday, June 26, 2006 (or 02006, in the Long Now mode), that Eno took the stage at the Herbst in downtown San Francisco, sat across from the creator of the video game The Sims, Will Wright, and launched into a lengthy discussion about generative art.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the 900 attendees at the sold out Eno-Wright event, and I took a bunch of notes, but they’re rendered somewhat redundant, since the Foundation has quickly posted a downloadable file of the discussion (MP3) and launched an online forum (at longnow.org). They had three laptop computers between them: two PCs for Wright, and an Apple for Eno, who also had an Evolution musical keyboard hooked up. At times he provided a score to the talk, or to Wright’s visuals.

Some key observations from each of them: Eno on being a maker of seeds, not forests; on wind chimes as an early version of generative art; on how he recorded much of his ambient work at twice the speed at which it was commercially released. Wright on Eno re-releasing the music at the speed at which it was recorded. Eno christening such a re-release “amphetamine ambient.” Eno on hearing a piece of a country song emerge from a random piece he’d played for thousands of hours. Wright on how his next game, Spore, was inspired by the film Powers of 10 by Ray and Charles Eames; the game is amazing, by the way, so much so that it makes Pikmin (one of the best games ever for the GameCube) look like Pickup Sticks by comparison.

Eno on how culture is “everything you don’t have to do,” how he was so entranced by the game Life at the S.F. Exploratorium when he was living here that he became a docent, an “explainer,” at the museum. Wright on discovering art made with material from The Sims by players of the game: he realized fans were entertaining him much as he had been entertaining them. Stewart Brand, another Long Now founder, at the start of the question period, contrasting the way Eno and Wright work: Eno’s ambient music expands time, while Wright’s simulations compress it. Wright, in response to Brand’s question about how one “plays” both music and games, suggesting that “play” is a word that is designed not to be precise.

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The Unessentialist

Christopher Bissonnette talks about music on the periphery.

The computer-enabled musician Christopher Bissonnette doubly subsumed his source material last year. In the production of Periphery, on the Kranky record label, he employed recordings of instrumentation associated with the classical symphony orchestra, including strings and piano.

But by the time Periphery was complete, those elements were, by and large, more present in Bissonnette’s memory than in the actual sound of the album, a wide aural swath that is luxurious even if its elegance tends toward the rarified. There are hints, like the burbling cello lines that hover below and the individual piano notes that skim the surface of the opening track, “In Accordance.” But the music on Periphery is more along the lines of a composed drone than a minimalist concerto. (I included it in the list of my favorite CDs of 2005 — the list is here.)

And then, when packaging the album, he purposefully left out any explanation of his process, leaving the album to speak, quietly but forcefully, for itself. As such it marked a distinct departure from at least one previous Bissonnette release, the album anonymous, which came out on the Thinkbox netlabel in 2002. (Bissonnette is a founder of the Thinkbox collective, at thinkbox.ca.) That earlier album was brittle and stark, where Periphery is warm and inviting. What both albums have in common is an attention to detail and a comfort with making the most of small impressions.

Bissonnette took time this year for an interview in which he unpacked some of the process that went into Periphery, talking about the nature of recording live in the studio, how he hones software tools for specific tracks and the importance of making peace with mistakes.

Marc Weidenbaum: The album credits you with having “recorded and produced” Periphery and someone else, Joshua Eustis, as having “mixed and assembled” the album. Could you describe Eustis’ role in the making of Periphery?

Christopher Bissonnette: The recording and production was completed by myself in my home studio. As this was my first attempt at a full-length album, much of my material for Periphery was selected from a large body of experiments, live excerpts and completed tracks — none of which had been specifically planned for a collection together. Once I had selected the tracks that I felt had a certain coherency, I shipped the individual tracks off to Joshua Eustis, of Telefon Tel Aviv, in New Orleans for assembly and final mastering. I did not feel completely confident in my engineering skills to provide a balanced mix for my debut release. Joshua is a trained recording engineer and had mixed our last Thinkbox release, Guitar. We were quite satisfied with the results so I felt assured that with Joshua’s help with Periphery, the album would sound the best it could.

Weidenbaum: Like many experimental electronic albums, on Kranky and on other labels, Periphery is almost entirely devoid of explanatory text. Press releases, though, included a fairly good bit of background description, in which we learned the album “is a collection of piano and orchestral based material.” Was it a conscious decision to keep that information from the listener, to have them listen context-free?

Bissonnette: No, I don’t believe that is was a conscious decision. I designed the album art myself, and being a minimalist at heart, I quite simply and likely unconsciously excluded a great deal of information for the sake of a restrained design. In retrospect, I may not have even provided that information in the press release as I’ve been told by quite a few people that is was unnecessary — that the work was capable of standing on its own. My process for producing the work was quite important to me, and perhaps is of interest to other experimental electronic musicians, but may not mean a great deal to the majority of listeners.

Weidenbaum: I’d love for you to explain what’s inside one of the cuts, to in some detail describe the recording and production process of a track. It might help to focus on “In Accordance,” “Comfortable Expectations” or “Pellucidity,” since excerpts of those are available for free download from the Kranky website (kranky.net).

Bissonnette: Much of my process starts out the same way for many tracks. I’ve usually scanned endless samples before singling a few out. Many of the tracks I produce are constructed from only a few samples and at times, one well-constructed source. Once I’ve chosen a good piece, I then follow a process of isolating selected portions and through a custom granular software patch I begin to develop sustained sounds. Once I’ve produced a handful of designed sounds, I then begin the process of composition. I then produce a custom patch for each track that allows me to set up random changes but still grant me the control to construct the composition. I usually spend a few days getting comfortable with the patch and the sounds it produces. Once I feel confident with how I can control the results, similar to how you might acquaint yourself with a new instrument, I then record a few sessions. In the case of “Comfortable Expectations,” it turned out to be one take. Even if I attempted to re-record a track like “Pellucidity,” it wouldn’t likely sound the same as the cut on the album. Much of the composition comes from knowing the patch and knowing that a part of the results will be beyond my control. I believe this recording technique allows for a more intuitive construction, free of over-thinking.

Weidenbaum: That’s very interesting that each track has its own patch — your approach blends the idea of programming and composition. Are these in the software Max/MSP? What basic tools do you use?

Bissonnette: Strangely, I don’t really see myself as a programmer. I have simply spent a fair amount of time with a couple of programs. I use a combination of programs that include Reaktor, Audiomulch and, for some compositions, Ableton Live. I use Live for performance, but I’m not sure there are many laptop musicians who don’t anymore.

Weidenbaum: I’m intrigued you don’t think of yourself as a programmer — I wonder if that has something to do with the increasing fluidity of the music-software interfaces?

Bissonnette: Yeah, I’m not really much of a programmer. I think you’re right, many music programs have improved, their developers now understanding that musicians or artists aren’t necessarily technically minded. I think Ableton is a great example of a company that understands that music software is ultimately for musicians. It just has a well-understood, intuitive feel.

Weidenbaum: You mention that you record a few sessions — by that do you mean that each performance we hear on Periphery is, in fact, a live run-through? If so, are any of them edited, in post-production, aside from things like fading in and out, and clipping for length?

Bissonnette: That is true. Each of the tracks on Periphery is a recording of a live mix. There is minimal editing, but as you stated it is mostly fades and alterations to track length. Of course there is some post equalizing and subtle mixing but all the tracks are recorded live in a way that doesn’t allow me to reconstruct the composition. This is a limitation, but I’ve found that if I set some restrictions it allows the work to have a life of its own, so to speak. I have learned to accept the mistakes, glitches and unplanned moments as part of the work. It also prevents me from overworking a track, which can often result in a sterile composition.

Weidenbaum: Does the word “glitch” resonate with you at all? There is music on Periphery that has the textural abrasions and semi-random minute fissures that have been described with that word. I was wondering what those sonic effects mean to you, from a compositional point of view.

Bissonnette: As I stated in the last response, I have learned to embrace error in my work. Kim Cascone wrote about the use of digital “detritus,” “by-product,” and “background” in his essay “The Aesthetics of Failure.” Periphery is an embodiment of this theory often referred to as “unessentialism.” The album is constructed from the “in between” sounds and textural moments found in the background of recordings. My approach has not been to acquire glitch as a part of my palette of sounds, but rather accept it as a byproduct of my process. My work has been at times described as “ambient,” which is by definition not inappropriate, except for the association with the term “ambient music,” which carries strong sub-cultural associations that emerged during the era of rave culture. Although I attempt to create an immersive experience, I believe that allowing the process of production to be revealed through glitch, distortions and error, grounds the listener and prevents the track from falling into the entrapments of the “chill out” experience.

Weidenbaum: The record includes a small line of text that tells us to listen to it loud. I suppose you meant it in part as a joke, since the music and the packaging suggest a somewhat more placid experience. Still, can you talk a bit about composing quiet music that’s intended to be listened to loud? I consider listening to something loud inherent in listening to it closely.

Bissonnette: I believe that the instructions to “listen to it loud” may have been included in the press release. Although these are not my words, I believe that at times, gentle, subtle music requires a bit of volume in order to appreciate the details hidden below the surface. Stephen Mathieu, known for delicate and intricate soundscapes, has also suggested that his music be experienced at a reasonable volume. I think that this may be in response to a growing interest in “lowercase” sound, which is nearly imperceptible at moments and ultimately requires dedicated listening. I could only hope that Periphery might be listened to with a certain undivided attention, avoiding the epithet of “good background music.”

Related links: Christopher Bissonnette's website, christopherbissonnette.ca.

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