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

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Listening to Yesterday: Dim Sonics

The feel, if not the content, of conversation

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The local restaurant at lunch yesterday was sizable, in all three dimensions. The large space was packed with diners of all ages, several tables with at least four generations of family members. The double-high ceilings collected the conversations from the various tables, jumbled them up, and shot collages — echoed, splintered, layered — to wherever you sat or stood. Virtually every table was speaking Chinese, ours being one of the few exceptions. Nothing overheard by us was understood, rendering the numerous conversations, the ones close by and the ones reflected off the ceiling, into a kind of human-generated white noise. The murmuring, all at a reasonably sedate volume level, combined with the drone of the nearby soda machine into an underlying purr. In some ways we felt culturally apart; in different circumstances, the buzz might have reinforced such a feeling. In other ways, though, we felt strongly bound by our shared neighborhood and our mutual affection for this restaurant’s sesame balls, shrimp dumplings, shumai, and other dim sum treats. In that latter regard, the vocal hum felt like we’d tapped into the neighborhood’s energy, into the tonality, if not the content, of micro-regional conviviality.

(Photo by i_yudai, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

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What Sound Looks Like

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt


Things decay differently down by the ocean. Sand eats at the plant life. The faces of residents look older, thanks in no small part to extended sun exposure. Wind pushes trees away from the coast. Bird droppings cover much of the west sides of ocean-facing buildings, the air current forcing the poop eastward before it might hit ground. And the salt air rusts what it can, such as the exposed defunct button spaces on these doorbells. Further inland, a dead button is merely void. Here, long after it’s been replaced by a cheap secondary device, the void corrodes and rusts, as do the larger container parts. The doorbell buttons may no longer function, but they’re evidence nonetheless that nature has called.

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.
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Listening to Yesterday: Branded Interference

The digital signature of media failure

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I started using an additional video streaming service. Its interface was just different enough from those of other streaming services that my brain had to adjust during the early stages of adoption. Even when watching a TV episode or a movie within a given service, there is a layer of service-specific interface design. It can take awhile for that layer to become mentally invisible, brand transparent, aesthetically neutral. The same can be said of its interference.

There is no truly blank canvas in digital media. One service shows a more granular level of stills during fast forward and reverse, while another does a better job of adjusting to your TV screen, and yet another seems more finicky than its competitors about just how low-rez it’ll consider displaying an image when, for whatever reason, the wifi is sluggish. If the wifi drops below that service’s effete threshold, it defaults to a signal-error screen, while all the other services seem happy to serve up a glitchy entertainment of blocky, vaguely familiar images that suggest Chuck Close trying to give Bill Viola a run for his installation money.

This new service had hit a slow spell, and the screen reverted to a melty image that brought to mind an overplayed VHS cassette, or more to the point the digital simulation of an overplayed VHS cassette on some contemporary retro drama set in the penultimate-lapsarian era of early Internet adoption. The audio held for awhile, so my brain knew who was talking. I began to wait out the low-fidelity spell like one might a snow storm or a case of indigestion. The TV snow of my youth came to mind, but this was something else entirely, a mutant hybrid, half-noise, half-signal.

And then the audio itself gave, the music and voices intermingling into some sludgy, broken stream of consciousness. The effect was familiar but distinct from the failures of other streaming services, which ran different technology on different hardware in different clusters of geolocated farms of different servers. This glitch sounded different from the other services’ subpar moments. It seemed that even the interference was branded, bearing an imprint that was an artifact of countless decisions encoded into the stream. Yesterday this interference felt new, and for some time it will be recognizable. At some point will it, too, become generic, transparent, neutral?

(Photo by fdecomite, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

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Listening to Yesterday: Light and Truth

A tale of mundane synesthesia

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“What is that sound,” Billy Bragg once sang. “Where is it coming from?” He was not describing the room in my home where something, yesterday, was ringing. For awhile I thought it was just my ears — allergies, age, perhaps a cold. I heard the ringing, but figured it might be internal. Then someone else came in and asked what the sound was. Aside from my laptop, there was nothing on that might emit sound. The guitar amp was off, the modular synthesizer was off, a handful of musical gadgets were off. Even the power strip into which most of them were plugged was off. This was all self-evident in the bright room.

I turned off the light switch on the wall. The room went dark, except for the bit of sunlight that made it through the drawn blinds. The room also went silent. The sound had something to do with the light fixture that hung from the ceiling. I turned the light switch on, slowly, and the room began to become more visible. The sound was gone. The room, however, was darker than it had been. Minutes ago two incandescent bulbs had filled the room with light and sound. Now one of the bulbs was dead. That whine, that electric buzz, had had something to do with the now dead bulb’s last moments of function. I pictured its filament, close to the breaking point, the tension in its failing, spring-like connection, before it finally had given way.

(Photo by Dave Crosby, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

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Listening to Yesterday: Avoiding Claustrophonia

That droning feeling

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There was a hum in the air, a fast-cycling white noise that filled the room. The room’s one door was closed, and its windows, in order for the machine making the noise to have its full effect. The machine was a powerful air purifier, an allergy-related device designed to pull dust from the room and adhere it to an easily removable filter, a robust one that could last months before disposal. The hum wasn’t merely a presence in the room. When turned on, the device’s fuzzy droning consumed the room. Like a quiet talker who draws in listeners, the machine seemed to pull the walls closer, an impression furthered by the closed door and windows. The outside world lost any presence. Not a siren or a bird or a passing bus was heard for the duration. The use of the machine was never a claustrophobic experience — never a claustrophonic experience. There was an intimacy to it, womb-like, comforting. The therapeutic purpose of the machine provided a positive association with the hum. I wondered if the company that manufactured the machine had worked to tune it, to give it a hum that was pleasant despite being so present, one that felt ameliorative rather than threatening. I wondered if, over time, the hum might alter — erode, degrade — and someone, the equivalent of a piano tuner, would have to come to my home and adjust it.

(Photo by Kent, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

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