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.

The Virtuous Circle of Aphex Twin Fandom

An interview with Joyrex, whose WATMM forum rescued a lost Richard D. James album from 20 years ago

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Last month, March 2014, marked the 20th anniversary of the release of the landmark 1994 Aphex Twin album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. I wrote a book, also out last month, about that album, as part of the 33 1/3 series. A main thesis of my book is that the Aphex Twin album’s extensive cultural afterlife has significantly shaped our understanding of its music, has changed the way it sounds, how it is appreciated. Much of that post-release change is the result, I argue, of the role played by fans of the music. This process has taken time, but it began almost immediately upon the release of the album, when a member of an email mailing list about electronic music took it upon himself to give names to the tracks on Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Those tracks on the record are, with one exception, essentially title-less. That is, they have no “word names” but are instead associated with cryptic photographs. The responsible fan on the mailing list, whom I tracked down and interviewed for the book, recognized the images in the photos and assigned names to each of the tracks based on those photos. Those fan-determined track names stuck, and in fact are to this day readily disseminated by such systems as Gracenote, which populates media services with record-album track metadata.

And now, just a month after the Selected Ambient Works Volume II anniversary, again Aphex Twin fans have not only played a significant role in an album by Richard D. James, the British electronic musician behind the Aphex Twin mask — they have quite literally taken an unreleased album and made it commercially available for the first time. And the album in question dates from the same year as Selected Ambient Works Volume II: 1994.

The story has been widely covered in the past 48 hours or so, following the April 8 report on factmag.com, and what follows is an interview I conducted via email earlier today, April 10, with the individual behind the effort to make the record widely available. That person goes by the name Joyrex and he is the founder of WATMM.com, which takes its initials from the track “We Are the Music Makers” off Aphex Twin’s 1992 album Selected Ambient Works 85–92. The track samples Gene Wilder uttering the words of 19th-century author Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy in Mel Stuart’s film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, adapted from the Roald Dahl book. Like Richard D. James, O’Shaughnessy was a British citizen of Irish extraction. The movie came out in 1971, the same year that Richard D. James was born. (Joyrex takes that avatar name — also the name of a website he founded prior to WATMM — from a handful of recordings that Richard D. James has released under the name Caustic Window. He gave me the option of employing his given name here, but I’ve decided to stick with Joyrex.)

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Disquiet Junto Project 0119: Paperback Beatmaker

Write music to accompany the typing of a work of fiction.

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Each Thursday at the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud.com a new compositional challenge is set before the group’s members, who then have just over four days to upload a track in response to the assignment. Membership in the Junto is open: just join and participate.

Tracks by participants will be added to this playlist as the project proceeds:

This project was published in the evening, California time, on Thursday, April 10, with 11:59pm on the following Monday, April 14, 2014, as the deadline.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto):

Disquiet Junto Project 0119: Paperback Beatmaker

This week’s project listens to the rhythms inherent in text. Please use a manual typewriter if possible.

These are the steps:

Step 1: Locate a section of a piece of written fiction that you admire. The section should be roughly between 125 and 200 words long.

Step 2: Record youself typing those words. Please note: You need not type it perfectly, and you should feel comfortable making some corrections as part of your typing. That said, you should come as close as possible to typing it straight through. And you should, if possible, record this in stereo in a way that distinguishes between the left and right sides of your typewriter. That text should account for roughly between a minute and a half and three minutes.

Step 3: Listen through the recording, making note of rhythmic themes, such as repeated sequences of letters, or natural pauses, or intriguing spacial separations across the keyboard.

Step 4: Record a piece of music to accompany the typing, music that uses the inherent rhythm of the typing as its foundation. Imagine, if you will, that someone could listen to this music while writing, and get into the groove, the zone, the mindset of the original writer.

Step 5: Upload the file to the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud and describe your approach and process in the text field associated with the track. Please be sure to name your source-material text.

Step 6: Listen to other members’ tracks as they appear in the Disquiet Junto feed on SoundCloud, and comment on them when you have the time.

Deadline: Monday, April 14, 2014, at 11:59pm wherever you are.

Length: The length of your recording should be two minutes.

Information: Please when posting your track on SoundCloud, include a description of your process in planning, composing, and recording it. This description is an essential element of the communicative process inherent in the Disquiet Junto.

Title/Tag: When adding your track to the Disquiet Junto group on Soundcloud.com, please include the term “disquiet0119-paperbackbeatmaker″ in the title of your track, and as a tag for your track.

Download: It is preferable that your track is set as downloadable, and that it allows for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution).

Linking: When posting the track, please be sure to include this information:

More on this 119th Disquiet Junto project — “Write music to accompany the typing of a work of fiction” — at:

http://disquiet.com/2014/04/10/disquiet0119-paperbackbeatmaker/

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

http://disquiet.com/?p=16588

Join the Disquiet Junto at:

http://soundcloud.com/groups/disquiet-junto/

Image associated with this Junto project used via a Creative Commons license:

https://flic.kr/p/bRZRL

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Remembering Kurt Cobain (Feb. 20, 1967 – Apr. 5, 1994)

Grunge, drones, and fame

This is the last paragraph of the third chapter of my recently published 33 1/3 book Selected Ambient Works Volume II, about the Aphex Twin album by that name released by the labels Warp and Sire 20 years ago last month. Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. The Morley in this part of the narrative is Risa Morley, the woman who signed Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) to Sire:

The month after the Aphex Twin album was released, Kurt Cobain of the grunge band Nirvana killed himself. Cobain’s death was in part read as a sign that music welcomed as a respite from the excesses of rock would perhaps inevitably itself succumb to those same excesses. Morley told me a story about Aphex Twin having been intended to appear on the cover of a major British music magazine and the slot being cancelled to make room for Cobain’s obituary. While Warp was demolished, in her words, Aphex Twin was if anything relieved to keep stardom at arm’s length: “I just remember him being very weirdly happy that he was not going to be on the cover, in a twisted weird way.”

I sometimes sense an inter-genre feud between grunge and electronic music, both of which were enjoying particular attention in the mid-1990s, so I think it’s worth listening back to Nirvana’s first full-length album, Bleach, and recognizing in it an adherence to repetition, a near-mechanical fury, that is of a piece with the slower of bands like Sunn O))), Godflesh, and most directly Earth, the doom rock outfit headed by Cobain’s friend Dylan Carlson.

More on Selected Ambient Works Volume II at disquiet.com/saw2for33third.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0118: That Ringing Sound

What is the room tone of the Internet?

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Each Thursday at the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud.com a new compositional challenge is set before the group’s members, who then have just over four days to upload a track in response to the assignment. Membership in the Junto is open: just join and participate.

Tracks by participants will be added to this playlist as the project proceeds:

This project was published in the evening, California time, on Thursday, April 3, with 11:59pm on the following Monday, April 7, 2014, as the deadline.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto):

Disquiet Junto Project 0118: That Ringing Sound

This week’s project is as follows. Please answer the following question by making an original recording: “What is the room tone of the Internet?”

When you’re done, upload the file to the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud and describe your approach and process in the text field associated with the track. Listen to other members’ tracks as they appear in the Disquiet Junto feed on SoundCloud, and comment on them when you have the time.

Deadline: Monday, April 7, 2014, at 11:59pm wherever you are.

Length: The length of your recording should be two minutes.

Information: Please when posting your track on SoundCloud, include a description of your process in planning, composing, and recording it. This description is an essential element of the communicative process inherent in the Disquiet Junto.

Title/Tag: When adding your track to the Disquiet Junto group on Soundcloud.com, please include the term “disquiet0118-internetroomtone″ in the title of your track, and as a tag for your track.

Download: It is preferable that your track is set as downloadable, and that it allows for attributed remixing (i.e., a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial sharing with attribution).

Linking: When posting the track, please be sure to include this information:

More on this 118th Disquiet Junto project — “What is the room tone of the Internet?” — at:

http://disquiet.com/2014/04/03/disquiet0118-internetroomtone/

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

http://disquiet.com/?p=16588

Join the Disquiet Junto at:

http://soundcloud.com/groups/disquiet-junto/

Image associated with this Junto project used via a Creative Commons license:

https://flic.kr/p/2af9A

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Sonic Pedagogy Update: Explicit/Implicit

Notes on my course on sound in the media landscape

I’ve been teaching my course on “sound in the media landscape” at the Academy of Art in San Francisco for three years now — four semesters straight since 2012 — and I’m loving it.

It seems like just yesterday that my first day of lecturing was upon me and my many educator-friends were sending me encouragement. This semester has been especially enjoyable — not just because with each passing season there’s iterative improvement of the topics, but because this semester the specific subject that has in the past proved the most elusive is, quite suddenly, not really much of a problem for the students to comprehend. This came down to one tiny little change I made in the curriculum, and yet the impact on the students’ perception of the materials has been remarkable.

Pretty much every week I assign work that builds on that week’s lecture, and I assign work that looks forward to the next week. This latter pre-lecture, pre-discussion work preps them by getting them thinking about the ideas before I explore them more fully in class — ideas like “sound in product design,” or “the history of the jingle,” “the public voice” (largely about public address systems), and so forth.

Anyhow, the course spends a lot of time on the distincion between “explicit” and “implicit” sound — between that which is self-evidently part of a product, a service, an institution, and so forth, and that which is inherently part of the same subject yet isn’t as widely understood to be so. It’s the difference between foregrounded sound, branded sound, and background sound, tacit sound.

For example, the sound of Rice Krispies cereal is explicit (it’s referenced in the characters of Snap, Crackle, and Pop), while the sound of typing on the screen of an iPad is more implicit (the tablet is often described as being silent in contrast with traditional keyboards, even though typing on an iPad does make a sound). Likewise, the quality of audio on an MP3 player or phone is likely an explicit aspect (a selling point), while the sound of the headphone being plugged into the jack is more implicit (an everyday but largely ignored aspect). The spark, the static, of plugging a guitar cord into an amplifier is a more trenchant image than is the plugging in of a headphone into a phone.

I say “more implicit” because these these things are entirely relative — and because over time implicit sounds can become explicit when they become identified with the product, service, institution, and so forth. In some cases it is more general than a specific product; it’s about a category — the Harley Davidson engine sound is unique to that vehicle, while the concept of an electric car is synonymous with an idea of relative silence. These positions are relative. In the course we tend to work on them in the form of a standard grid of quadrants — not distinct buckets so much as relative positions, along these lines:

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In the past, the pre-lecture homework on this explicit/implicit material yielded not so much more questions than answers, than it did as much confusion as curiosity. The whole distinction became so loaded down that explicit/implicit for some students became synonymous with confusion, and up through the last day of a given semester we’d still be discussing how it might be employed effectively. The material was still central to the class, and essential to the subjects at hand, and yet the discussion was muddied by this confusion. I’m not saying that every subject is class is uniformly comphrehended by the students — all of them seem to get “synesthesia” and “soundscape,” while not all have embraced “acoustemology” — but this explicit/implicit material is something this semester that I really wanted to work through more productively, and I gave a lot of thought to how to better present it.

And oddly, it took just a simple change to make progress in that regard. Because this aspect of the course is especially abstract, I simply didn’t assign much in the way of pre-lecture, pre-discussion homework about the distinctions between implicit and explicit sound. I introduced the ideas in class first, built on them in various class meetings, and then dedicated a working-session class — more discussion than lecture — to work through it all. That class meeting occurred yesterday, the ninth weekly meeting of the 15-week semester, and it went quite smoothly.

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