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: 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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What Sound Looks Like

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


In contrast with many home-brew domestic doorbell fixes, this one is easily understood. The black void where there was once a button for apartment number four has been addressed, so to speak, with a newer-model plastic standalone item. The photo may not make this clear, but that isn’t duct tape around the newer button. It’s a metal sheath of the same material as the gate. Despite what the varied buttons suggest, someone is in fact concerned with design continuity at this multi-unit building. If the broken button wasn’t easily rewired, the question lingers as to whether up in apartment four this new button is mirrored by a new bell. Perhaps every time it rings, it echoes through the building as a reminder to neighbors of other petty differences.

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

"You don't have to put on the red light. Those days are over."

  1. conference call
  2. user interface

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The conference call lasted a little over an hour, four people in four different buildings on two different coasts. The discussion was mediated by a software interface. The software allowed for screen-sharing, but especially prominent on the interface, this being a live conversation, were markers for various aspects of the audio. A little microphone symbol was situated next to each speaker’s name — that’s speaker as in human, not as in sound-emitting technology — and a horizontal meter registered how loud someone was talking. Whoever spoke, their name appeared prominently next to the word “talking.” This was an imperfect approach, since had someone been sharing my laptop with me, my name would have appeared when they spoke. On this call we all knew each other well enough that the names were unnecessary.

I’ve seen variations on this speaker-identification model over the years. One that particularly stuck in my memory used a spatial relationship for the voices, so you’d see them on the screen in a manner that suggested they were, in essence, in different seats. It was a bit like an ambisonic Jedi Council: If you listened on headphones, the voices were also situated spatially across the stereo spectrum. You had the option to move them to where you wanted them, so you could group them according to role or organization. It seemed particularly useful as a means to evenly distribute the people who talked too much.

On the conference call tool yesterday, the microphone button was red when someone had muted it, green when they had it live. Color is a whole other ball of wax from sound. There are especially strong cultural associations with color, though the associations also vary widely around the globe. In the west, red is often seen as an admonition (stop, warning), whereas in Asia it can suggest happiness (good luck, joy). On this call, red was intended as neutral, a simple “off” in an on/off binary world, but it seemed to still carry some cultural baggage. I had it on red/mute most of the time so that my typing of notes didn’t fill up the sonic conversation space. I couldn’t help but think, though, that the red next to my name was unintentionally signaling disinterest. I also wondered if any of these whiz-bang digital conference-call tools could just filter out keyboard clatter.

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Listening to Yesterday: Muted Victory

The smile-inducing ditty at the end of a New York Times' online crossword puzzle

  1. a sound cue in an online game
  2. a phone call interruption

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The payoff is a split-second filigree from a what appears to be a jazz piano trio. It sounds like the modest backing band to a quiz show or late-night talk show. The celebratory equivalent of a rim-shot, the sound in question is the little ditty that plays at the end of “The Mini” crossword, a daily feature on the website of the New York Times. I recently started doing the Mini in the morning, usually getting it done in under a minute (:54 today), sometimes a little over two minutes. Yesterday it took over 9 minutes, closer to 10. I might have just stopped trying, but I persevered, winding my way through various unfamiliar words — most sports-derived, if memory serves. If anything is going to flummox me, it’s sports-related information. I did take a short call in the middle of the puzzle, and neglected to hit pause on the Times site, so I can let that interruption account for perhaps two minutes of my extended linguistic struggle, brain slowly coming out of its slumber-fog. In the end the disappointment wasn’t that it had taken so long, but that I’d had the computer on mute, which meant that the jazz trio’s flourish never was heard from my laptop’s speakers. Games are games, so this user-experience ditty isn’t a matter of gamification, per se — of the application of game play to other types of activity. But it is a bit like “video-gamification”: the application of video-game elements to non-video games. Not getting to hear the riff after exerting so much effort provided a classic example of adding insult to injury.

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Liner Notes on Early Carl Stone

From Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties, forthcoming from Unseen Worlds

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Carl Stone invited me to write liner notes to a forthcoming release of some of his early music, Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties. That is to say, early in his career; it’s not archaic woodwinds and pre-polyphony singing.The album is due out September 30 from the label Unseen Worlds (more at unseenworlds.com). The release will also include liner notes from Stone himself, and from Richard Gehr and Jonathan Gold.

The pieces I wrote about are described as follows: “The earliest works of this collection, ‘LIM’ and ‘Chao Praya,’ realized on the Buchla 200, date to the early 1970s while Stone was a student of James Tenney and Morton Subotnick at CalArts.”

The album is due out September 30 as a three-LP set. Here are my liner notes:

The composer Carl Stone is often associated with multi-channel work that immerses the listener in a spatial sonic zone, and with aggressive sample manipulation that explores its source audio from the inside. The two early Stone pieces, LIM and Chao Praya, are neither. Conceptualized and recorded between 1972 and 1974, they are elegant, built from limited resources. They may play with the stereo spectrum, but their intended breadth is reserved.

They are student work, in the sense that they were recorded while Stone was an undergraduate at CalArts in Los Angeles. The early 1970s were an especially heady time at CalArts. The composers Ingram Marshall and Charlemagne Palestine were graduate students there while Stone, an L.A. native, was earning his bachelor’s degree, Barry Schrader was among the school’s instructors, and Buchla synthesizers were available if not abundant.

They are student work, in terms of when Stone committed them to tape, but they are fully realized performances, in the sense that four-plus decades later they are compelling, consuming listening experiences.

Chao Praya has at its heart the tingling wavering associated with a prayer bowl, or perhaps a police helicopter. It undulates, and in turn its various procedural wave forms reveal their constituent parts. Shades take on greater emphasis as increased volume brings details into focus.

LIM, in contrast with Chao Praya, often plays at higher registers and with greater variance. Here there are space ships rather than helicopters overhead. Here tonal shifts launch slow-motion cascades of moiré patterns. At even a modest volume, the results have a physical effect, playing with the ear. They tease at the nexus where sounds venture beyond human recognition.

Morton Subotnick, one of Stone’s teachers at CalArts, speaks of how he was drawn to electronic music when he began to dream music that an orchestra was not capable of producing. Stone’s is such music. This isn’t to say this work is opposed to the classical tradition. Quite the contrary, with their relatively compact length — barely 20 minutes combined — and economical contents, these two pieces have the air of études, of compositions that set out to explore a terrain, to map out combinations and permutations, the repercussions of resonances, and to set them down for study.

It is all too easy with the rise of digital media to credit the blank slate of streaming audio and the frictionless playback of solid-state drives with the level of nuance we experience in today’s sound design and audio recordings. Certainly these newfound comfort levels with quietude have created opportunities for musicians to nurse and adopt ambient proclivities. But the re-release of Chao Praya and LIM evidence that there are composers, Carl Stone key among them, who were working these elds from the beginning, who recognized at the start that new instruments would yield new forms.

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