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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IDM and Its Discontents

Participating in Pitchfork's "top 50 IDM" poll

Pitchfork has published a list of “The 50 Best IDM Albums of All Time.” I participated in the voting, and wrote up three of the albums: Mira Calix’s One on One, which came it at 47; Plaid’s Not for Threes, 36; and Aphex Twin’s … I Care Because You Do, 13. Aphex Twin also topped the list, with Selected Ambient Works 85-92 coming in at number 1. These are my first Pitchfork bylines, though I’ve been written about on the site twice: Mark Richardson generously interviewed me about my Aphex Twin Selected Ambient Works Volume II book, and my book was included in the site’s list of the 33 best books in the 33 1/3 series, as compiled by Stephen M. Deusner. I can’t link directly to the individual “IDM 50” reviews, but the Calix is on the first page, the Plaid on the second page, and the Aphex Twin on the penultimate page.

IDM is shorthand for “intelligent dance music,” and it played an influential role in my life. It’s on the IDM discussion boards that I made friends and participated during the early, proto-Internet 1990s in discussion of music that the music press often was unaware of, and I say that as someone who was at the time a full-time employee of the music press, working as an editor at Pulse! magazine, published by Tower Records. (It’s on an IDM discussion board that Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II’s tracks got their titles, as I recount in my book.)

I was delighted to be asked by Pitchfork to participate, and I should also note that I was conflicted. For one thing, I don’t give much credence to genre. Genre was a somewhat useful tool in the age of brick and mortar record stores, back when someone had to decide where to put Nina Simone (pop, jazz, jazz vocals, oldies). In our hypertextual present, genre is at best a flavor, one among many. A recording today can and should be tagged: situated at the nexus of an associative Venn diagram, not stuck in a genre box. Boxhead Ensemble’s Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back is country and it is ambient; Mason Bates’ The B-Sides is classical and it is electronic. I can count on one hand the number of musicians outside of hip-hop I’ve interviewed who expressed firm alignment with any specific genre. We should follow the musicians’ lead. I’m also not a big list-maker. I know people who make lists of everything, favorite films and favorite books and so forth, but that’s just not how my brain works. All of which said, it’s not a coincidence that after several years of not feeling inclined to produce top 10 lists at the end of the year I suddenly this past December made several such lists. It was, indeed, my participation in the email discussion for the Pitchfork IDM list that convinced me that, in essence, if you don’t make lists, someone else will.

The way the Pitchfork process worked was that a bunch of invited critics were asked to help flesh out a sizable collection IDM albums for consideration. We discussed these via email. Then we filled out our own ballots, selecting a subset of the complete set (we were allowed to list up to 50 albums, and mine felt complete at 33). Math and the Pitchfork editors’ inclinations produced the final 50.

I think my ballot was probably among the more conservative submitted. One wise participant described IDM as more of a period than a genre. After I flirted with a far wider aesthetic net, certain constraints got me to 33 entries. I stuck in the end to a working definition I posted to the discussion list: IDM: A genre of electronic music that foregrounds beats in the exploration of the arrhythmic, abstract potential of hardware and software, often but not exclusively tools originally designed with dance music in mind. Touchstones include chaos, entropy, digital decay, and technological intentionality.

As I thought through the material, I kept coming back around to the distinction between “bebop” and “hard bop,” between music that was explicitly challenging to its audience, and music that built on the codified understanding of bebop and then layered in something more soulful, more r&b, more, for lack of a better word, “pop.” A “best bebop” list isn’t going to include hard bop, even hard bop by people who earlier on recorded bebop, and my “best IDM” list didn’t include whatever the equivalent of “IDM hard bop” is, or “IDM pop” for that matter. That explains in part the absence of more contemporary acts.

In addition, there were a lot of albums tossed around that sound like techno or dub (or dub techno, or minimal techno) or microsound to me. If it sounded prominently and consistently like those, all I could think was, “Well if there’s going to be a best techno or best dub or best microsound list someday, why include this here?” Same for trip-hop, and for (instrumental) hip-hop. I’d love to have included early Kit Clayton, but in the end it sounds like great dub techno to me, as does so much Monolake, and even a lot of Sun Electric for that matter. I love Prefuse 73, but he’s somewhere in the post-trip-hop/proto-EDM realm, like Flying Lotus, with a lot of instrumental hip-hop in there. Even Prefuse’s One Word Extinguisher doesn’t strike me as IDM. (Note that I was considerably outvoted: Both One Word Extinguisher and Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles made the final top 50.)

As the discussion proceeded, we all added records to the pool. Among others I added Mouse on Mars’ Iaora Tahiti, Bedouin Ascent’s Science, Art, and Ritual, Matmos’ Matmos, Blectum from Blechdom’s’ De Snaunted Haus, Bogdan Raczynski’s Boku Mo Wakaran, and Greg Davis’ Arbor. I’m disappointed in particular that Arbor didn’t make the final top 50.

There was a lot of music on the collective list — some of which made the final list — that I love, including records that effectively shaped the course of my life, in particular Wagon Christ’s Throbbing Pouch (truly a landmark recording), but that I didn’t include in my ballot because they lack the chaos and entropy that I see as inherent in IDM (the slurry quality of Throbbing Pouch has the entropy, but there’s zero chaos). I mean, if I included Throbbing Pouch, then why not Kid Koala, and Funki Porcini, and DJ Krush, and Pierre Bastien? They’re all of a piece, along with Prefuse 73 and Flying Lotus: politely swaggery, introspectively soulful, hip-hop-informed, cautiously dramatic. They’re funky wallflower music. But they’re not, to my narrow mind, IDM.

Instrumental hip-hop was a subject of discussion. Why not include the more experimental realms of that beatcraft, the logic went. I was thinking about the production of some earlier Destiny’s Child singles, the scattershot (in a good way) beats in particular of “Say My Name” and, syncopation heaven, “Bills Bills Bills.” I wasn’t sure how to fold into the IDM list-making the producers largely associated with hip-hop and r&b whom I’ve followed (er, collected) for their rhythmic invention (the 45 King, Just Blaze, Alchemist, Kev Brown, and of course Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Neptunes, DJ Muggs, and so forth). Various realms of more dance-oriented electronic music also popped up, and when someone mentioned Larry Heard’s Alien I responded that it feels more Tangerine Dreamy when it ventures out. I was also not enticed to include Björk’s Vespertine because of the remarkable scope of the album. There’s a lot of non-IDM on Vespertine, like “Undo” and “Sun in My Mouth,” among others. (And I declined as a guy who had an e.e. cummings quote in the high school yearbook.) I was disinclined to include Photek in the mix, as to me it’s simply great drum’n’bass — and in fact to think of it as IDM is to, in essence, accept drum’n’bass as being not particularly explorative. Likewise, I was utterly flummoxed on how to characterize Amon Tobin, very much to his credit, though tellingly he didn’t make the final 50.

While doing research for the project, I looked back on my recent employment of the term and recognized that I often say “IDM-ish,” seeing it as a flavor, not a constraint, or use it to characterize an earlier period in music production. In any case, the discussion ended, the ballots have been cast, and the full list is at pitchfork.com. The process was highly enjoyable, and I hope people enjoy the result.

This first appeared, in slightly different form (e.g., no streaming videos), in the January 24, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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This Week in Sound: Sonic Illusion + Stonehenge Simulation +

+ audio birding + theater geeks + jack politics + more

A lightly annotated clipping service:

Sonic Illusion: “[W]hat we imagine hearing can change what we see” is the layperson’s summary of an investigation by Christopher C. Berger & H. Henrik Ehrsson (“The Content of Imagined Sounds Changes Visual Motion Perception in the Cross-Bounce Illusion”) noted in Nature. The article lays out various experiments involving response bias and auditory imagery. (I’m immediately drawn to wonder just how much, in turn, we can attribute to the role sound informs our experience of narratives and places.)

Stonehenge Simulation: Rupert Till of the University of Huddersfield has created a virtual experience of what Stonehenge might have been like “with all the stones in place,” writes David Sillito for the BBC. “He has now developed an app which will help people blot out the sounds – including those made by tourists, and cars on the nearby A303 – and go back to the soundscape of 3,000 years ago.” (The project brings to mind Bassel Khartabil’s work on revisiting the ancient city of Palmyra.)

Avian Few: Birds thought long ago to have gone extinct, having disappeared from their native England, live on in New Zealand. “By comparing recordings of yellowhammer accents in both countries scientists were able to hear how the birds’ song might have sounded in the UK 150 years ago,” reports Georgia Brown in the Guardian. (Via Tim Prebble)

Good Lick: According to the postal service of Greenland, only 10 to 15 albums of music are released each year by citizens of the island nation: “The bestselling of these are issued in a number of 5,000. copies. Rather impressing in at country of only 56,000 inhabitants.” So it is that the post office has released music-themed stamps, ranging from “drum song” to accordion music. (Via Michael Rhode)

Jacked Up: The headline to Rita El Khoury’s article at AndroidPolice.com says it all: “[Because that doesn’t sound ridiculous] HTC has an app to update the firmware of its USB-C to 3.5mm adapter.” It’s worth noting that as of this typing, the article has 137 comments.

Audio UI: That cool hockey puck that comes with Microsoft’s Surface Studio may have gotten old quickly: As Juli Clover reports at MacRumors.com, Adobe is working on voice-enabled search and editing of images.

Dust Up: Artist Nina Katchadourian has produced a sound tour of the MoMA in Manhattan in which she details the battle against dust at the venerable museum. As Aruna D’Souza writes at 4columns.org, two years of research yielded a 30-minute recording with numerous stops, among them “the main lobby, a closet holding air purifiers, the soaring atrium, the helicopter that hangs on the second floor, a window ledge.”

Theater Geeks: Putting aside the Wired article’s clickbait title suggestion of autonomously created large-scale buildings, Liz Stinson writes up the marvel that is the Elbphilharmonie. That’s a new theater in Hamburg, Germany, and its acoustic panelling was produced with hyper-detail computer aid: “No two panels absorb or scatter sound waves alike, but together they create a balanced reverberation across the entire auditorium.” The architecture firm of Herzog and De Meuron collaborated with acoustics expert Yasuhisa Toyota on the project.

Primate Directive: Researchers have found that human and baboon voices have far more in common than was previously believed to be the case, writes Colin Barras for the New Scientist. Joël Fagot (Aix-Marseille University) and Louis-Jen Boë (Grenoble Alps University) have identified previously unrecognized vowels among 1,300 baboon subjects.

# FADE OUT

Recent deaths of note.

RIP, musician Tommy Allsup (b. 1931), who lost the coin toss that would have put him in Holly/Valens/Bopper’s plane

RIP, Bronski Beat keyboardist Larry Steinbachek (56)

RIP, pianist and singer Buddy Greco (b. 1926)

RIP, songwriter Greg Trooper (b. 1956). He wrote, among others, “Everywhere,” a war heartbreaker I know from Billy Bragg’s great cover.

RIP, conductor, composer, and scholar of Australian music Richard Divall (b. 1945)

RIP, Hans Berliner (b. 1929), chess champion and early computer-games figure

RIP, Keyboard Magazine (42)

RIP, Dick Gautier (b. 1931), played rock star in Bye Bye Birdie

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 17, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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What Sound Looks Like

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


There are nine buttons at the front gate of this multi-unit building. All but two are unidentified. Of the sole two with addresses labeled, one displays the unit information three times (look on the underside), perhaps for emphasis, perhaps to make up for the way you can convince yourself you accidentally wrote a four when you meant to write a nine, the top bit of connective typographical tissue ambiguous in regard to its solidity. The buttons here come in two sets, one of four, the other of five. Presumably the five came first, as they are built into the gate’s metal structure. They’re organized in a manner that may correlate with the layout of the building, or they are defaulting to some semblance of symmetry. The set of four is plastic, set atop wood, which is then bolted on: plastic on wood on metal, a Ponzi scheme of relative material strength. Whether there is overlap between the two sets of buttons is unclear. A call to the locksmith’s latest phone number (note evidence of at least two earlier ones) might yield answers. When I shot this photo a woman was stepping out of an adjacent doorway. “What are you doing?” she asked me. “I take pictures of doorbells,” I said. Her tone shifted in an instant from accusatory to bemused: “Oh, that’s a first.”

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.
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This Week in Sound: Dementia + FM’s Dead End +

+ interstellar radio + video games music + the history of the wah wah pedal + more

A lightly annotated clipping service

Concrete Asylum: News that researchers had connected urban noise pollution to dementia spread widely this week. “Those living within 50 metres of a busy road had a 7% higher risk in developing dementia,” reports Hannah Devlin in the Guardian of the findings, also quoting skeptical voices: “The analyses are exceedingly complex … and this always leads to concerns that the analytic complexity is hiding confounding factors in the analytic pipeline” (theguardian.com, citylab.com).

FRB ≠ BFF: Weird interstellar radio bursts, known as fast radio bursts, or FRBs, have reached a milestone: the first repeating, unidentified signal. Writes Maddie Stone at Gizmodo, the source is three billion light years away.

Little Brother: The big news on the “always listening” front out of CES was the ubiquity of Amazon’s Alexa. But ubiquity isn’t the same as a monopoly. Mattel has employed Microsoft’s Bing/Cortana for its kid-oriented AI device. Writes Laurie Sullivan at MediaPost, regarding privacy issues, “It uses the same guidelines as hospitals.”

End of the Dial: Just last week I mentioned how electric cars don’t play well with AM radio frequencies. FM, apparently, isn’t immune to technological obsolescence. Reporting from Oslo, Reuters (via the Guardian) notes that “Norway will next week become the first nation to start switching off its FM radio network.” This despite overwhelming support for FM. The switch happens tomorrow.

Audio Borg: Google has acquired Limes Audio, based in Umeå, Sweden, to improve the sound quality of online conversations (or calls, or whatever we call them). Via Google.

Tone Man: Pharrell Williams lost a lawsuit last year due to what many consider a ludicrous judicial ruling regarding similarities between a song he produced and the work of Marvin Gaye. Interestingly, tone — sounds that reflect an era — is precisely his emphasis in this article on his role in the score for the film Hidden Figures (nytimes.com).

Game Tunes: While I managed time for best-of-2016 lists about apps, music, and film scores, I didn’t include several lists I’d like to be knowledgeable enough to attend to, among them video game soundtracks. Fortunately, the folks at originalsoundversion.com provide their analysis of exactly that. Visit to see (and hear) to the opinions of Ryan Paquet, Michael Hoffmann, Shawn Sackenheim, and Brenna Wilkes. (Found via Simon Carless’ excellent Video Game Deep Cuts email newsletter.)

Wah Wah: Del Casher, born Delton Kacher, is the father of the wah-wah guitar pedal, writes Jonny Whiteside at LA Weekly, and the pedal turns 50 this year. “I played it for James Brown and he really liked my playing, but he didn’t understand the wah-wah at all. He said, ‘Why the fuck would anyone want a guitar to do that?’” (Via Ethan Hein.)

Philly Sound (Art): Museums often have firsts, as they adjust to changing times and aesthetics. The Barnes Foundation takes firsts with extra consideration. This is the institution that faced legal challenges when its relocation was in the works. Now it is hosting its first sound art installation, titled Unbounded Histories. It’s by Philadelphia artist Andrea Hornick, and it functions as “a string of poems responding to specific works in the Barnes collection.” Visitors to the museum access the audio through “web-enabled phone.” It opened on January 6 and runs through February 19 (philly.com, barnesfoundation.org).

Fade Out
Recent notable deaths

RIP, Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, sitar star (b. 1929).

RIP, Serbian composer Vlastimir Trajković (b. 1947)

RIP, French conductor Georges Prêtre (b. 1924)

RIP, jazz critic Nat Hentoff (b. 1925)

RIP, composer Karel Husa (b. 1921)

RIP, singer Sylvester Potts (78) of the Contours (“Do You Love Me,” “Can You Jerk Like Me”)

RIP, Hawaiian musician Eddie Kamae (b. 1927)

RIP, British singer-songwriter Peter Sarstedt (b. 1941; “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”)

RIP, hip-hop producer DJ Crazy Toones (45).

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the January 10, 2017, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Surface Pro 4 Meets a Soft Synth

A little video about touch screen music software

I have a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 for the next few weeks. I don’t think I’m going to keep it, but I may yet switch from my MacBook Air to the Surface Pro 5 when that device comes out, supposedly later this quarter (early 2017). This video is simply a glimpse at how the touch screen works for music, specifically in this case how the Aalto synth, from Madrona Labs, works. Aalto is running here from within Ableton Live. The sound quality is poor because I’m just using my phone for both the video and the audio.

The short version is that the screen is great for this sort of software, something with lots of virtual knobs and patch cords and buttons intended for touchpad/cursor use. Aalto is fine with a keyboard and trackpad, but it’s even better with the touch screen. (Less great was finding an angle that would allow me to play the instrument and yet have the screen fairly visible. This is the best I could manage. I’m not much of a videographer. I annotated the video using iMovie. My iMovie skills are pretty limited, so forgive the junior-grade typography.)

The main thing that happens once you start using a synth like Aalto with a touch screen is that things that aren’t touchable, such as the shape of an envelope, suggest themselves as touchable. Perhaps software will become more touchable as time proceeds, with some features only available on touch screens. As a friend said elsewhere, once some things are touchable, you want everything to be touchable.

Shortly after I posted the video, Randy Jones of Madrona Labs took note of it and said interface adjustments were possible: “Nice. Yes, I could probably do something with those envelope areas.”

In related news, late last year I started this modest subreddit for Surface Pro audio discussion: reddit.com/r/winSurfaceMusic.

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