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

Monthly Archives: November 2010

Everyday Techno

The following, for a moment, should be heard without being read about or, for that matter, into:

What it isn’t is some long lost Chain Reaction 12″, though it could easily be, with its rumbling bass line, and the churning suppressed squalor.

What it is is a steam pipe, as captured by a microphone by Michael Raphael of Rabbit Ears Audio and posted on his blog, sepulchra.com. The post follows up a similar one from around this time last year, when Raphael wrote about apartment living in New York City (“My apartment features several steam pipes that seem to enjoy vocalizing”: sepulchra.com). It isn’t a coincidence that the posts are almost exactly a year apart, because the steam pipes turn on as winter approaches, and as the landlord decrees.

He writes of the more recent recording, with a nod to the audio-gearhounds who no doubt make up a significant percent of his readership, “Our steam pipes are full of character — they gurgle, hiss, clank, and make a host of other noises that I can’t begin to describe with adjectives. Last year, I recorded my steam pipe with a Schoeps MS pair on a boom, but this year I staked out my subject with a DPA 4060 taped to the wall next to the valve.”

Such thought experiments, such perception-reality switcheroos, are easily come by, and to some extent that is the point. The comparison, between field recording and abstract electronic music, isn’t intended to minimize or glorify either, just to draw attention to how the ear provides context simply by hearing. In the absence of context, our imagination provides context. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but imagination loves one, so much so that we fill the vacuum with quotidian reality long before venturing down more fantastical imaginative paths. When we listen to everyday sound — really listen to, as opposed to overhear (that last word being one that, it’s worth noting, contains its own inherent mistake) — we pay attention, and since the main sounds on which we consciously focus are voices and music, it is music that the everyday sounds come to resemble.

The association of everyday sounds with music is something Raphael is quite cognizant of. In another recent post, he describes the following recording, which while more self-evident than the above field recording is still worth hearing first out of context:

What it is is a ratchet, not the one you get at a hardware store, but the musical gadget employed by those MacGyvers of the orchestral world: the percussion section. Raphael visited his old music teacher, reflected on the work of Edgard Varese, and presented this sound, performed by his teacher, a sound that is neither fully instrument nor everyday noise. (Writes Raphael, “I just love the character of the instrument. It is not just some cheap piece of wood grinding away, but it has a real depth and dark quality to it.”) It’s a device whose modest nature puts it at the fulcrum of the two. In some ways, it can be seen as serving as a totem for the gap between music and field recording.

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David Byrne: Listening Head

It should be no surprise that when David Byrne was finalizing plans for an audiobook version of his mobile memoir, Bicycle Diaries, he didn’t just hire a B-movie actor to read it it, nor did he merely read it himself. He enlivened the entire enterprise with an ever-changing sonic backdrop (and, yes, he read it himself). By doing so, Byrne arguably created the rare audiobook that may be better than the written book (print or e-) itself. (That’s not to knock audiobooks — if you enjoy Don DeLillo, you owe yourself the experience of Stockard Channing reading Mao II, and The Body Artist is almost certainly more fulfilling when Laurie Anderson reads it.)

At his website, davidbyrne.com, there’s a taste of his literary-alchemical ingenuity. Click on the “Sydney” track and you’ll notice several things. There is his distinct speaking pattern, which is slurry and lispy [update: see comment] in a way his singing never seems, and then there is the gurgling didgeridoo underneath. Audio cues like that earthy glottal woodwind are used to underlay various moments in his recounting of events and observations.

And as of earlier this week, over at boingboing.net, they’re now hosting an excerpt from the book — and it’s at least the third or fourth generation of the story’s telling, depending on where you start counting. An excerpt from his “Berlin” chapter is reproduced, along with little audio-cue buttons that let you hear something: an urban soundscape, what appears to be an excerpt from the score to The Lives of Others, even bits of what seem to be original compositions (click on the arrow after “The Easties couldn’t afford it” to hear some lovely incidental music).

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Byrne could alter one’s expectations about narration. He’s argued in the past for the artistic potential of PowerPoint, and mixing sound and text here suggest another kind of bare-bones multimedia show that suits his trademark sense of economy.

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Mics, Cassettes, “Inner Piano,” Oh My (MP3)

Someone deserves an award. Someone, that is, who was at the Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann duo performance at Fotofono in New York City on October 3.

Foto Finish: Bonnie Jones and Andrea Neumann live at Fotofono this past October

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Maybe it was an especially attentive sound engineer, and maybe it was a particularly respectful audience, but recordings of microsonic improvisation are rarely as rich with place and sound, and just as importantly this devoid of extraneous noise, as the one that documents the Jones-Neumann show.

Jones is credited with “electronics, mics, cassettes,” and Neumann with “inner piano, etc.” Their 20-plus-minute set (MP3) is a study in lowercase-sound imprecision. To say it’s unclear which person is doing what at any moment has less to do with the absence of a visual to accompany the audio as it does with the level of trust that must exist between two musicians for them to navigate — to chart, to create from scratch — such a subtle landscape together. Light buzzing gives way to fritzy circuits give way to mad oscillations give way to droning static give way to buzzy vibrancy, each moving to the next with a natural progression that suggests a narrative impulse. Where it all ends up is a mass of tangling strings and utterly unexpected vocalizing.

The evening also featured sets by Andrew Lafkas, Barry Weisblat, and Margarida Garcia, and by Chris Cogburn, Gill Arno (mpld), and Tim Catlin. Give a listen at fotofono.net.

More on Neumann at japanimprov.com. More on Jones at bonniejones.wordpress.com.

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Anander Mol, Anander Veig

Eight remixes commissioned by Tabletmag.com for Hanukkah 2010

Curatorial projects with far-flung participants are increasingly a part of the Disquiet.com modus operandi. The most recent one — and there are several more in the works — is a collection of eight Hanukkah-themed remixes, just in time for this year’s holidays.

The project is hosted by the excellent folks at tabletmag.com, a website of Jewish art, culture, life, religion, news, and politics. You can get the full set here, and listen to a podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry, in which I’m interviewed about the set here. The album is titled Anander Mol, Anander Veig, which roughly means “another time, another way” (though there is some debate about that translation, and about how best to say “remix” in Yiddish).

The participating remixers are from around the world: “Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)” is Mark Rushton (Iowa City, Iowa; markrushton.com) working on a recording by Dov Rosenblatt, Rosi Golan, and Deena Goodman (archive.org); “Die Goldene Chasene” is xntrxx, aka Harro van Duijn (Etten-Leur, Netherlands: soundcloud.com/xntrxx), working on a recording by the late great Dave Tarras (archive.org); “Sivivon Sov Sov Sov” is Paula Daunt (Berlin, Germany: pauladaunt.com) working on a recording by Alicia Jo Rabins (archive.org); “Ose Shalom” is Diego Bernal (San Antonio, Texas: antipop.net) working on a recording by the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra (afroklezmermusic.com); “Thermoglyphics” is Dance Robot Dance, aka Brian Biggs (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: dancerobotdance.com), working on a recording by the New Klezmer Trio (composed by the group’s clarinetist, Ben Goldberg: bengoldberg.net); “Chanukah Chag Yafe” is by ocp, aka João Ricardo (Porto, Portugal: ocp.pt.vu), working on recording by the Alexandria Kleztet (kleztet.com); “Hava Nagila” is Roddy Schrock (Brooklyn, New York: fundamentallysound.org), working on a recording by Paul Toshner and Felix Benasuly, who perform together as poi43.com (London, England); and “Yishama-O-Rama (Radiata Edit)” is Cut Loose, aka Jen Bell (Wellington, New Zealand: cutloose.info), working on an “Od Yishama” recorded by the Klezmer Rebs (klezmer.co.nz). (All the source material use was approved by the musicians and/or their respective record labels.)

Past Disquiet.com projects, such as the Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet and Despite the Downturn collections, were conceptual at heart, often leading to abstract recordings. Anander Mol, Anander Veig is itself conceptual — the key difference is that the core concept is to achieve at least a modicum of populism. Translated: both before and after, this is party music.

Many thanks to all the participants (among them Brian Scott, of boondesign.com, who produced the cover art), and to everyone at Tablet.

I’ll have another post regarding the compilation in the coming days, collecting outtakes, including an alternate version of the Alicia Jo Rabins piece, a sonified short story by Sholem Aleichem, and seven different remixed versions of the Vox Tablet theme song.

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Phill Niblock Minds the Gap (MP3)

Delta Force: Phill Niblock performing live

The word “delta” has various meanings, meanings not entirely devoid of relation to one another. For example, there is the delta that is the place where a river divides and leaves an alluvial deposit. And there is the use of the term in the sciences, where it can signify a difference, an incremental change, a quantifiable gap.

In Phill Niblock‘s three-part “Sound Delta,” recently released for free download as part of the Touch Radio podcast (MP3), those two meanings collide, overlap, and otherwise play off each other.

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The first and longest of the podcast’s three sections, “Zound Delta,” is a mix of field recordings of a waterway, and what appear to be treated renditions thereof — sounds of rushing water, of gentle sloshing, at times seeming entirely natural, while at others mixed with a droning that suggests some sort of electronic processing on Niblock’s part. Now, those procedures could simply be a recording artifact, or the result of the sonic circumstances — the sound of a microphone underwater, or the echo in the belly of a boat. The potential confusion speaks to importance of context in listening, and the way many computer-music effects in point of fact mirror everyday experience. (The piece was the result of a 2009 residency with the European Sound Delta Project, where the Danube River meets Black Sea.)

All three of the tracks in “Sound Delta” make use of this sense of shifting, of life being experienced at the same time it is being processed. Niblock makes much of the gap between real and real-derived: of the delta, as it were, between life and electronic mediation. And what he finds there is as rich as any alluvial deposit.

A second track, “Bells & Timps,” takes Belgium church bells as its source material (recording credit goes to Godfried Willem Raes). Niblock says of the work, “I modified the time by stretching vastly, and some changes in pitch as well.” The result is a halo of attenuated sounds that hover around the original. And the third, “BuchBel,” makes much of the sound of a train recorded at night between Bucharest and Belgrade.

All three tracks are combined into one MP3 here. “Zound Delta” runs through approximately 21:52, “Bells & Timps” at about 27:22, and “BuchBel” runs from there until the end (39:23).

Original track at touchradio.org.uk. More on Niblock at phillniblock.com. More on the European Sound Delta Project at sound-delta.eu.

(Photo of Niblock in performance in Spain during 2006 from flickr.com by Asier Gogortza, published per Creative Commons.)

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