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

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Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

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News, essays, reviews, surveillance

This Week in Sound: Fahrenheit, Sonar Sabotage, Unsilent

An occasional clipping service

Audiobook Culture: The past weekend’s Sunday Book Review in the New York Times had an extensive section of audiobook coverage, including a review by Dave Itzkoff of Tim Robbins reading Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451. The conflict in Itzkoff’s piece seemed to be how the rise of the audiobook somehow is part of the gadget-ization of culture. And he credits Bradbury’s book for having posited the notion “that it was not a distant stretch from dismissing books as quaint and obsolete to banning them outright.” He writes, as well, “Fortunately, a few thousand years ago, we gave ourselves a sustainable and still reliable mechanism to provide shelter from these distractions, as well as the option to use it or not” — this “reliable mechanism” is, of course, the physical book. What he doesn’t mention in the review is how Bradbury’s book itself closes with an image of an even more ancient mechanism, in which people — not just people, but maintainers of culture — tell each other stories out loud. Full disclosure: I didn’t so much “read” Itzkoff’s review as listen to it via text-to-speech thanks to the function that is part of the New York Times’ Android app.
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/books/review/fahrenheit-451-read-by-tim-robbins.html

Sonar Sabotage: The headline says it all: “Study Shows Bats Jam Each Other’s Sonar to Snatch the Best Prey” (via Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner). Rishi Iyengar reports in Time magazine on research published in the journal Science that bats can block each other’s frequencies. Science’s Penny Sarchet likens it to “sonar sabotage.” It’s nature’s own EMP. The researchers are Aaron J. Corcoran and William E. Conner.
http://time.com/3571704/study-bats-jam-sonar-hunting/

Secular Robot Choirs: Unsilent Night is the annual secular caroling event, in which communal processions of boomboxes layer ambient scintillates provided by the composer Phil Kline. The schedule for the 2014 holiday season is now appearing online, including Manhattan on December 13, San Francisco also on December 13, and Toronto on December 19, with more dates to be added soon. I’ve walked the route in San Francisco, in the Mission, for many years, listening as Kline’s music fills narrow alleys and disperses into the street, as slight variations in playback create false echoes backward and forward in time. If it’s coming to your town, don’t miss it. If it isn’t, consider taking a trip.
http://unsilentnight.com/schedule.html

This post first appeared in the Disquiet email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Office/Bus Playlist

Also a test run toward a year-end top 10.

What’s on repeat, in estimated relative order of frequency.

  • Loscil’s Sea Island (Kranky, 2014): Gentle beeps and light burrs, so much happening from so little. I was asked, on Twitter, what this sounded like when I was just three tracks in, and I replied: “like a rainy day after the Singularity.” Many days of listening later, it still does.

  • Stafford Bawler, Obfusc, and Grigori’s Monument Valley (Original Soundtrack) (ustwogames, 2014): The score to the beautiful “casual” game is the perfect backdrop for a game that is itself only slightly more active than wallpaper.

  • Gavin Bryars Ensemble’s The Sinking of the Titanic (Recorded Live on 2012 Centenary Tour) (GB Records, 2014): A live performance of a work that always felt like a studio concoction. Listen as a band continues its performance even after the ship goes down.

  • Grouper’s Ruins (Kranky, 2014): Haunting, at times willfully unintelligible, dirges.

  • Michel Banabila and Oene van Geel’s Music for Viola and Electronics (Tapu, 2014): A lovely duet for complementary toolsets, one analog, the other digital. It’s to the album’s credit that it isn’t always clear where one of those ends and the other begins. One track, “Dondergod,” gets a bit intense, in a European free improvisation sort of way, but the rest is elegant as could be.

This post first appeared in the Disquiet email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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How Sound Frames Vision

My "Sonic Frame" collective audio installation at the San Jose Museum of Art

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Since October 2 I’ve had a sound installation at the San Jose Museum of Art. Titled “Sonic Frame” it will, through February 22, 2015, be on display at the museum as part an expansive 45th-anniversary exhibit titled Momentum: An Experiment in the Unexpected. I was invited to be one of the museum’s “intervenors.” Other intervenors include comics artist Lark Pien, San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Damian Smith, and poet David Perez. Our role as intervenors was to create new, original works that responded to works that are part of the museum’s permanent collection. I selected Josh Azzarella’s video “Untitled #8, 2004.” The video is two minutes and thirty one seconds long, and shows a shape slowly morphing against a light blue background. My response takes the form of three small screens on which the video loops repeatedly. Each screen contains a unique set of seven different audio tracks composed to complement it, so each time the video plays anew it is accompanied by different sounds. Two of the three screens have headphones attached, one has a directional speaker, and all three have jacks allowing the visitor to plug in their own earbuds or headphones. The variety of scores, 21 in all, influence the viewer’s experience of the video. Of the 21 scores, 14 were selected from tracks contributed to a project of the Disquiet Junto, the weekly music collective I moderate, and 7 were contributed as the result of a direct request by me to the musician.

This is the wall text that accompanies the piece:

Sonic Frame, 2014
Original soundtracks on tablets
Chosen artwork: Untitled #8 (2004) by Josh Azzarella

For Marc Weidenbaum, Josh Azzarella’s video Untitled #8, in which a form slowly shifts, suggests a visual parallel to the ethereal nature of sound: perceptible yet intangible. Through his online collaborative project Disquiet Junto, Weidenbaum collected and curated original works of music and sound from an international community of colleagues, which he then added to unsynced iterations of Azzarella’s silent video. Intended to explore transformation and stasis, the sound elements create auras, halos, and contextual sonic frameworks that gently alter the viewer’s experience and perception of Azzarella’s video art.

Focusing on the intersection of sound, art, and technology, sound artist and author Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996. Through Disquiet, he initiated and moderates the Disquiet Junto group, inviting musicians to respond on SoundCloud to weekly compositional projects. Weidenbaum is also an instructor at the Academy of Art in San Francisco where he teaches a course on the role of sound in media.

In the development of Marc Weidenbaum’s Sonic Frame, almost eighty musicians from around the world contributed original recordings for potential inclusion. The majority of these recordings, seventy in all, were produced as part of a project in the weekly Disquiet Junto series. Each week the Disquiet Junto online community responds to a different compositional prompt. Another seven tracks were created by composers who Weidenbaum approached directly to participate in the piece. Some of these musicians had previously participated in Junto projects, and he wanted to ensure their involvement in this one. In the end twenty-one recordings were selected for inclusion, seven different ones for each of the three frames.

These are the participating composers, broken down screen by screen:

Screen #1 (Left)
Taylor Deupree
Van Stiefel
Natalia Kamia
Naoyuki Sasanami
Carlos Russell
Mark Rushton
Paolo Mascolini (Sōzu)

Screen #2 (Center)
Stephen Vitiello
Steve Roden
ævol
Marcus Fischer
Julia Mazawa
Westy Reflector + Lee Rosevere
Ezekiel Kigbo (The Atlas Room)

Screen #3 (Right)
Steiner (Stijn Hüwels)
Christina Vantzou
Scanner
Inlet (Cory K.)
Jean Reiki
Marco Raaphorst
Bad Trails

Here are some images of the installed work. My “Sonic Frame” hangs directly to the right of a large, 50″-screen display of Azzarella’s original video:

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And here are shots of the overall exhibit information, as displayed on walls at the museum:

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The museum has asked that I don’t post the combination of video and sound online, so that the work is unique to the exhibit, and I want to respect that request. Here is a set of all the tracks resulting from the Junto project:

And here is the original, silent video by Azzarella they were intended to accompany:

I received a lot of input and assistance in the development of the “Sonic Frame,” and in particular I want to thank Lauren Franklin for video editing, Paolo Salvagione for designing and producing the screen enclosures, Jonathan Odom for woodwork on the enclosures, and the staff at the San Jose Museum of Art for their support, advice, and attention.

Here are some images taken during the installation process:

2014-09-29 10.06.09

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2014-09-29 16.51.15

2014-09-29 16.52.00

2014-09-29 16.54.52

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More on the exhibit at sjmusart.org.

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For the Record: Raster-Noton

An essay on the label's Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai

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I mentioned this last year, but am only now getting around to posting the text. I was invited to write an essay for the tremendous book For the Record: Conversations with People Who Have Shaped the Way We Listen to Music. Published by Red Bull Music Academy in late 2013, it is a collection of marvelous team-ups, such as Martyn Ware talking with Nile Rodgers, and Lee “Scratch” Perry talking with Adrian Sherwood, and Robert Henke talking with Tom Oberheim. Each of the participants has an essay providing background on their activities, and I was asked to write one on Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Bender, who co-run the great Raster-Noton label and who speak with Uwe Schmidt in the book. Here’s the text of my essay:

By 1999, the Berlin Wall was dust for a decade, and a new threshold was in view. Though the next millennium would not begin, technically, until 2001, the year 2000 hovered just ahead in the popular imagination with a mix of portent and promise. This anticipation in mind, the German record label Noton invited an international assortment of musicians to contribute to a monthly series of recordings titled 20’ to 2000.

Each participant was directed to record what they felt might play on a home stereo for the 20 minutes just before bells would bring in 2000. A dozen in all, these contributors included Thomas Brinkmann, Scanner (AKA Robin Rimbaud), Mika Vainio (of the duo Panasonic) and Wolfgang Voigt. Their music, a mix of emotionally remote glitch and ambient, signaled a considered ambivalence about the future. The releases were as stark in packaging as they were sonically: Composed of standard-size CDs, the outer two inches of which were fully transparent, encased in nearly mark-less clamshells, each connecting to the next with small magnets, resulting in something like the vertebrae of a squat cyborg snake.

Also among the participants were Carsten Nicolai, who had since the mid-1990s run Noton as his own concern, and Olaf Bender, who had around the same time founded — alongside Frank Bretschneider — the label Rastermusic. The imprints shared an interest in viscerally ascetic, ecstatically minimal tracks. Music that whittled the rhythmic intent of techno down to myriad displays of patterning.

The series not only announced the beginning of a new chronological mindset, but coincided with a merger: Noton and Rastermusic would become Raster-Noton. Since the 1999 union, visual design and sonic experimentation have been its hallmarks. The label has released a sequence of recordings that, while originating from a variety of musicians, can be heard to collectively explore a shared territory. Raster-Noton effectively existed as a homestead on the frontier of digital art, and then waited until the rest of the planet caught up.

Today, of course, data visualization is pervasive, but its accepted norms can be tracked back to the early efforts of Bender, Nicolai, and the cohort they assembled at Raster-Noton, most notably Ryoji Ikeda, who has made a name for himself by filling art spaces with immersive barcode projections. The expressly global Raster-Noton label has served as a safe haven to Russian-born CoH, Swedish tape-music tinkerer Carl Michael von Hausswolff, British broken-techno duo snd (Mark Fell and Mat Steel) and a crew of Americans, among them to sound artist Richard Chartier, microsound explorer Kim Cascone and William Basinski, best known for his work with decaying tape loops.

The label has also been home to the unceasing productivity of Bender and Nicolai themselves. Nicolai’s solo releases, usually under the name Alva Noto, can often sound less like individual records than like the latest in a series of missives from a rarefied landscape. He is also prolific collaborator, having recorded alongside artists as diverse as Ryoji Ikeda, with whom he shares a love of immersive data environs, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, whose melodic proclivities offer a useful counterpoint. Those efforts have increasingly made him as prominent in art galleries as he is in clubs (How many techno musicians have work in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art?) His books, such as Grid Index and Moiré Index, look exactly like his music sounds: geometric structures whose complexity is rooted in slight shifts rather than sweeping gestures.

Like Nicolai, Bender is as much a graphic innovator as musician. It is a distinction that he willfully blurs, as in the title to his 2008 album, Death of a Typographer. The music found within has the cadence and intent of techno, but registers as barely a sequence of blips — the blueprint for techno in the form of a click track. Bender generally records under the moniker Byetone, and is given to koan-grade pronouncements about dedication to luxurious aridity. He once told an interviewer that he prefers the phrase “How less can I do” to “How much can I do.”

In 2013, Bender and Noto opened for the global synth-pop act Depeche Mode. Bender and Noto’s project for this stadium-proportioned enterprise was Diamond Version, a trio with the Japanese musician Atsuhiro Ito, a virtuoso of the fluorescent light bulb, which he wields like an especially theatrical Jedi knight. The association with Depeche Mode was not implausible, despite the seeming gap between their audiences. In the year prior to the tour, Diamond Version began releasing a series of hard-hitting, club-teasing EPs on the Mute Records label, a longtime residence for Depeche. Around the same time, Noto contributed a remix to a single by VCMG, the two-man supergroup comprised of Depeche Mode’s original songwriter, Vince Clarke, and the man who inherited those duties when Clarke left the band early on, Martin Gore.

The beats of Diamond Version are more louche than much of what Bender or Noto have previously produced — the effect is less white-wall gallery, more opulent urban lounge — but the dance-party tonalities only serve to disguise a trenchant minimalism that is of a piece with their collective catalogs. Diamond Version should be heard not as deviating from their more abstract Raster-Noton activities, but as another layer in the social graph that is Bender and Noto’s combined artistic vision. For we know what happens when new layers are added to corresponding yet inherently distinct data sets: familiar patterns are disrupted, and a new moiré emerges.

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More on the book at redbullmusicacademy.com. And here’s something I wrote about the early Raster-Noton set 20′ to 2000, pictured above, back in 2000.

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Two Recent Talks

Sound art at CCA + "music comics" at the Academy of Art

I gave two talks recently in San Francisco. The first, on October 23, was part of Chris Kallmyer’s course at the California College of Art. The second, on November 11, was a standalone event at the Academy of Art.

The one for Kallmyer’s course, which is about sound as an artistic medium, was a chronology of my work in sound, starting in 2006 and running up to the present. That initial year, 2006, a decade after the launch of Disquiet.com, was, in retrospect, a big transition year for me. That was the year I put together the Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet compilation, as a response to the open call for remixes that Brian Eno and David Byrne created to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their classic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album. I then connected the dots from Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet through a subsequent series of compilations I put together, all of which involved me asking musicians to respond to a specific compositional prompt — for example to defend Susan Philipsz in Lowlands: A Sigh Collective, to refute Megan McArdle in Despite the Downturn. Those 2010 projects led to a loosening of the curatorial method in the 2011 Insta/gr/ambient compilation, which was broader minded, and had about twice as many members as the earlier projects, and that in turn led to the far more open-ended Disquiet Junto, which as of this writing is finishing its 151st weekly project. In between I touched on the 2009 piece I had at the gallery Crewest in Los Angeles, the 2012 project of putting together a score for the exhibit Rob Walker curated at Apex Art in Manhattan, and my piece at a Dubai art gallery at the start of this year, and brought things into the present with the exhibit I currently have at the San Jose Museum of Art (more on which here at Disquiet.com shortly). I don’t think I’d ever really done a talk before in which all those things were connected as one continuum. It was very enjoyable to walk through, and Kallmyer’s students were curious, thoughtful, and intelligent.

The talk I gave at the Academy of Art was an overview of the work that went into the four comics I edited recently for Red Bull Music Academy (MF DOOM, DJ Krush, Can / Damo Suzuki, Isao Tomita). In the talk, I began back in 1992, when I started editing the comics at Pulse! magazine for what would turn out to be a decade, and then my half decade at Viz, the manga publisher. The Red Bull Music Academy comics combined those two periods, in that the comics drew creators from both Japan and North America. In preparation for the talk I had a bit of a realization about a question I’ve been asked regularly since 1992: “How do you edit comics?” I’ve long struggled with detailed explanations of what it means to edit a comic, and developed this theory about how people who can’t draw can have a tendency to read too much into how complex drawing is, when for someone who can draw a rough illustration is about as much effort as a paragraph is for a good writer. But I now think the question “How do you edit comics?” may have at its root a more simple misunderstanding. When a lot of people hear the word “edit” they think it means, at most, “copyedit,” and they are confused by how you can “copyedit” a picture. In the talk I gave at the Academy of Art I explained that true editing is, ultimately, a form of creative direction, whether or not pictures are involved. Anyhow, the opportunity to talk about comics at the Academy of Art (which is where I’ve taught my sound course for five semesters so far) was very enjoyable, and it was organized by Cameron Maddux.

Many thanks to Kallmyer and Maddux for the opportunities.

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