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: March 2012

One Night in Brooklyn (MP3)

A brief excerpt of Taylor Deupree and Stephen Vitiello live in concert

Taylor Deupree and Stephen Vitiello played a concert together earlier this month. If you follow either musician, and anyone who admires ambiguously melodious ambient music should, then you knew this, because they mentioned it on Twitter, and posted photos as they were gearing up, such as the one above. It took place in Brooklyn, and fortunately for those of us not in the area, Vitiello has subsequently posted a six-minute piece from the show. It’s an enticing teaser, a mix of deep, midtempo swells and rough, light textures — and, toward the end, what could be distant screams, like cat calls in a cemetery. The swells seem to consume the textures as much as the textures seem to pierce the swells. The result, until that dramatic turn toward the close, is an expert study in uneasy balance. That closing section, the muted call, lends a kind of retrospective sense of narrative to what had preceded it.

The live recording is from a show at the Presents Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, from a concert organized by John P. Hastings as part of the gallery’s Sound Series. Track originally posted for free download at soundcloud.com/stephenvitiello. More on the event at soundatpresents.tumblr.com. More on the gallery at presentsgallery.net. Vitiello at stephenvitiello.com, Deupree at 12k.com.

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Tangents: defining electronica, jamming speech, updating apps, …

News, quick links, good reads

Jargon Watch: Last week I happened to watch an episode of CSI (the “original” series). Titled “Trends with Benefits” it was a foray into the interpersonal impact of surveillance culture, and into the perceived — perhaps the best word is “purported” — generational technological gaps. The key episode-specific character, the dead body around which the narrative circles, was a precocious Las Vegas college student who aspired to the gossip profession (the TMZ enterprise was name-checked). His dorm room was found to be loaded with prosumer technology, including cameras and various other recording devices. One of the CSI staff (the character named Greg Sanders, shown above) observed the collected digital equipment and said of it, “The kid had all kind of electronica.” It’s worth noting that this Sanders character is on the young end of the CSI staff, and was displayed in stark counterpoint to the character played by Ted Danson; Danson’s character isn’t quite sure what “trending” meant in regard to social networks, and he sometimes holds a smartphone like it’s the first time he’s ever been handed a pair of chopsticks. This usage, by Sanders, of the term “electronica” in this manner is interesting, and promising. (The episode’s script is credited to Jack Gutowitz, who according to IMDB.com spent a lot of time on Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.) It employs it to describe not a specific and dated subset of popular electronically produced music, but the broader flotsam of general digital-era activity. That is along the lines of the sense in which I use the term, and why I have resisted the urge, over the years, to remove it from this site’s logo.

Speech Jam: Geeta Dayal, author of the 33 1/3 book on Brian Eno’s Another Green World, has taken residence at Wired’s website, which is good news. In one of her first wired.com posts, she covered the “Japanese speech-jamming gun” and smartly highlights precedents ranging from J.G. Ballard to Karlheinz Stockhausen. (Additional coverage at technologyreview.com and io9.com.)

App Updates: These are all iOS, though some if not all also apply to their Android versions. Thicket has added three new modes. NodeBeat has added MIDI support, and expanded the number of savable recordings. Ambiance has added the ability to record sounds and to play sounds in “background” mode, among other things. The eDrops app has added new sounds and the ability to load and save patterns. Audioboo seems to have mostly focused on infrastructure for its latest update. Air has added AirPlay support. Reactable has added access to the community area, “save and view” performances, and more.

Social Bullet: I wrote the following to someone asking for how to “use” “social media” to “promote” their music: “The whole social media thing is complicated. There is no generally applicable answer. I would say the following, broadly: make sure you participate. For example, the Junto project had rules, and to have posted on it without reading the Info page was a matter of not really participating. Make sure if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and SoundCloud that you actively participate: post, reply to other people’s posts, comment on their music. This will, in time, lead to a stronger sense of community. You’re find musicians with whom you have things in common, and you’ll support each other in your pursuits.” (The context was correspondence with someone who had posted a track to the Disquiet Junto project on Soundcloud.com that didn’t have anything to do with the current project.)

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Mickey Mousing (MP3)

Some people play music boxes better than other people do.

The short piece of music “Muffled Mouse” is like a sonic Christo rendering of a Walt Disney icon. It is not a statue of Mickey Mouse covered with a lavender swath of fabric. It is a recording of a music box playing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song that is, true to its title, muffled. We know that the music box, like the piano, is a percussion instrument hiding in plain sight, but oddly enough it is the act of hiding the instrument — muffling it — that brings its percussive undergirding to the fore.

The track was posted by Jesse Cox of Searcy, Arkansas, at his soundcloud.com/the-ordinary page. He’s also posted, for comparison’s sake, the “original” (unmuffled) recording. As he points out in the track posting, “you just hear the clicks of the tines and other inner workings.” The muffling does the opposite of what is expected: it exposes. You hear through the original song, and what you hear is the mechanism itself.

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Writing About Dancing About Architecture About Music About Writing

In praise of imperfect translations from one medium to the next

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The phrase is often employed in an effort to deflate the very act of writing about music. Who exactly first uttered it remains unclear. Some point to Frank Zappa, others to Laurie Anderson, and others still to Elvis Costello. The latter option is especially meta because it aligns so well with David Lee Roth’s deflation of Costello’s own music-critical reputation: “Music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello.”

Rob Walker, who looks even less like Elvis Costello than I do, digs into the subject at his designobserver.com blog, and rightly summarizes the key deficiency in the “dancing about architecture” slight. The notion of it being a slight is a matter of perception. The whole idea of “dancing about architecture” is, as he puts it, “fairly awesome.”

He digs further into this deficiency by taking issue with a telling comment from a piece, published earlier this year, in the Telegraph:

Writing about music has a serious built-in problem, which is that the only thing worth doing is also nearly impossible: to convey something of what the emotional experience of listening is like.
The Telegraph story was written by a classical pianist, Jonathan Bliss, on the occasion of his first ebook publication, a Kindle Single titled Beethoven’s Shadow. It’s a kind of musical memoir, a study by Bliss of his involvement in Beethoven’s music.

Walker, a friend since my New Orleans days, dissects that above sentence thusly:

Okay, this is the problem. An attempt to describe architecture via dance does seem obtuse; so does choosing dance as a medium to express the three-out-of-five stars or thumbs-up-thumbs-down version of “criticism.” But “writing about” something, music included, can obviously mean something beyond description paired with a judgment rendered. (In fact, even “criticism” ought to mean a lot more than that.) So I reject the restrictions that the above definition implies.
I was going to take some polite issue with the “obtuse” matter, but Rob shortly thereafter kind of did so himself, when he introduced, in a subsequent post, the concept of “ekphrasis” to the discussion — it’s the Greek term for a dramatic description of a work of art. The term is useful in various ways, in particular by making clear a long history for cross-medium interaction if not downright cross-pollination, and especially for a literary tradition.

It also brings to mind another Greek term essential to the consideration of borders between mediums: Laocoön (pictured below), the mythological figure from which Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (in his landmark Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry) derived his stricture that the arts, like the muses from which they borrowed their names, are distinct from each other. It’s a formidable text, but my interest in synaesthesia, the mixing of the senses, pretty much precludes me from fully agreeing with it. (As does my interest in comics. From a literary perspective, Lessing’s Laocoon can be read as a sort of a formalist version of Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent.)

But mostly, the sheer Greek-ness of ekphrasis reminds us of that modern mythological figure: Iannis Xenakis, the Greek genius who was equally accomplished in music and architecture. The clear parallels — geometric, aesthetic, philosophical — between his work in both fields evidence the extent to which ideas move back and forth between them. Lessing may have written the book on the perceived distinction between art forms, but it was his countryman, the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, born a few years before Lessing died (and, it is worth pointing out, a contemporary of Beethoven), who contributed a significant correction by famously describing architecture as “frozen music.” To look at Xenakis’ scores and at his buildings is to observe forms take similar shape. (At the top of this post are, side by side, Xenakis’ score “Metastasis” from 1954, and a photo of the Philips Pavilion from 1958, which Xenakis designed while working for Le Corbusier.) It’s arguable that Xenakis worked back and forth between music and architecture in pursuit of some elusive singular goal, each alternating effort akin to lifting one foot after the other on his way up a ladder.

Now, back to the Telegraph story by pianist Jonathan Bliss that Walker quoted above. There’s an interesting moment in the Telegraph piece that reveals some of Bliss’ thinking. It occurs in a sentence that happens to immediately follow the one Walker quotes. It goes like this:

This is so extraordinarily difficult because to write effectively you need to be direct, clear and specific, whereas the glory of music lies in its abstraction – its nearly infinite malleability according to the listener’s psychological state – and if you don’t embrace that, you are sure to miss its essence.
What’s worth focusing on is Bliss’ sense of what he terms “abstraction.” Certainly there is an element of abstraction in music, but I’d push back on Bliss’ comment a little. Much perceived “abstraction” is still in pursuit of something; there’s often what musicians refer to as an “idea” at the heart of the compositional activity. To write about a work of music can be a parallel matter of pursuing those ideas. One might not, as a result, express the ideas in abstract terms, but like Xenakis on his way up the proverbial ladder I have depicted, the ideas remain the goal — arguably a willfully elusive goal — in both situations. Indeed, such writing may not “convey” the “emotional experience,” as Bliss puts it, but it may bring its own pleasures to the pursuit.

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Past Week at Twitter.com/Disquiet

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