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.

tag: classical

Post-Classical Sequel

A peek at a new Christina Vantzou album


The second album from Christina Vantzou is due out on February 24. Titled No. 2, it follows her earlier No. 1, which was released in late 2011. The new album is on the label Kranky, which is home to such notable musicians as Jessica Baliff, Greg Davis, Grouper, and Keith Fullerton Whitman, as well as the Dead Texan, which is Vantzou’s collaboration with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid, also on the Kranky roster. Kranky has posted a track from No. 2 in advance of the album’s release. “Going Backwards to Recover That Which Was Left Behind” is a slow-moving chamber piece that builds as it goes, its increasing density of instrumentation at each moment in an eager, quiet struggle to keep the increasing momentum from undoing the stability of what the piece has accomplished thus far. Melodic fragments are repeated on varied instruments, the orchestration swelling as it passes its midpoint, and a reticent horn section — reminiscent of David Byrne’s Knee Plays — eventually filling things out. Absolutely beautiful.

Track originally posted for free download at soundcloud.com/kranky. More by Christina Vantzou at christinavantzou.com, which is where the above images are from.

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Silence Beyond Punctuation

A solo piano piece by Glasgow's Elizabeth Veldon

In the recent solo piano piece by Elizabeth Veldon, “The Pure Water, Filled with Light,” the light may very well be the spaces between the notes. That’s an unnecessary distinction, because silence is a kind of note unto itself, so safer to say that the light is the space between the parts played between the piano. The piano is slow and studied, and at times meticulously random, brief moments of melodic fragments and sudden stoppages. The silences are of irregular length, which means that rather than serve as pauses, they stand as sonic content as well. One listens to the silences to hear what they contain, what they mean, rather than treating them as mere punctuation. It’s quite a feat.

Track originally posted for free download at soundcloud.com/elizabethveldon. More from Veldon, who is based in Glasgow, Scotland, at elizabethveldon.tumblr.com, twitter.com/elizabethveldon, and elizabethveldon.bandcamp.com.

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Music from What Ails You

Composing in response to injury, by Alison Doyle


Alison Doyle has not posted a new track to her SoundCloud account in nine months. The last one was less than a minute in length, a field recording of the sound of the Arts Music Building at Cornish College. What is heard is someone’s piano practice, routine stuff, from a distance. The music, the performance, is but a portion of the overall audio, however — the remainder is wind noise and bird song and a significant amount of otherwise everyday ambience. The second most recent Doyle track is also nine months old, and it tells a specific story, in firm contrast to the field recording, which is willfully and expressly quotidian. This other piece, “Bloodwork,” is a slow, steady, explorative piano piece. It takes its time, rarely moving beyond its rudimentary, and yet thoroughly engaging, melodic line.

The rhythm is the thing here. If it sounds like martial music, solemn in its own way, that seems fitting as Doyle wrote at the time that it came out of her experience of damaging one of the core parts of her toolset: her left hand:

Mostly improvised, this piece was written one week after stabbing a knife through my hand. My apologies for the seriously flawed mastering and wonky recording; a work in progress and so thankful I didn’t permanently damage my hand.

As such, the work brings to mind other musicians’ response to injury, such as Brian Eno’s sick bed revelation, as he recounted in his liner notes to his Discreet Music album in 1975, which laid the groundwork for his ideas about ambient music, as well as Nils Frahm’s 2012 album Screws, which took its title from the items in his hand after he damaged it. Frahm, like Doyle, is a pianist. The Disquiet Junto, shortly after the release of Screws, did a collection of reworkings of his recording, essentially adding our collective fingers in the temporary absence of his out-of-commission one. It is difficult to listen to the Arts Music Building field recording after listening to Doyle’s “Bloodwork” and not imagine her sitting there, patiently waiting — well, perhaps not patiently — to heal enough to get back at it.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/alliedee.

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On Disquiet.com now participating in the Gizmodo ecosystem

These are two things that I think Geoff Manaugh, editor-in-chief of the technology and design blog Gizmodo.com, didn’t know about me when he asked if I’d consider bringing Disquiet.com beneath his website’s expanding umbrella.

1: My “to re-blog” bookmark file has been packed in recent months with scores of items from pretty much all of the Gizmodo-affiliated sites — not just Gizmodo, but io9.com, Lifehacker, Jalopnik, Gawker, and Kotaku. Probably Jezebel and Deadspin, too, but the file is too thick for me to tell.

2: Pretty much the first thing that I read every morning with my coffee — well, every weekday morning — is the “Morning Spoilers” at io9.com, the great science fiction website that is part of the Gawker network that also contains Gizmodo.

I knew Manaugh’s work from BLDGBLOG and, before that, Dwell Magazine. He’d previously invited me to involve the weekly experimental music/sound project series that I run, the Disquiet Junto, in the course on the architecture of the San Andreas Fault that he taught in spring 2013 at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture. And I am excited to work with him again.

And so, there is now a cozy disquiet.gizmodo.com subdomain URL where I’ll be syndicating — simulposting — material from Disquiet.com, as well as doing original straight-to-Gizmodo writing. I’m hopeful that members of the Gizmodo readership might further expand the already sizable ranks of the Disquiet Junto music projects (we just completed one based on a post from Kotaku), and I’ll be posting notes from the course I teach on “sound in the media landscape” at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco.

For new readers of Disquiet, the site’s purview is as follows:

* Listening to Art.

* Playing with Audio.

* Sounding Out Technology.

* Composing in Code.

I’ll take a moment to break that down:

Listening to Art: Attention to sound art has expanded significantly this year, thanks in no small part to the exhibit Soundings: A Contemporary Score at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. That exhibit, which ran from August 10 through November 3, featured work by such key figures as Susan Philipsz (whose winning of the Turner Prize inspired an early music compilation I put together), Carsten Nicolai (whom I profiled in the new Red Bull Music Academy book For the Record), and Stephen Vitiello (whom I’ve interviewed about 911 and architectural acoustics, and who has participated in the Disquiet Junto). But if “sound art” is art for which music is both raw material and subject matter, my attention is just as much focused on what might better be described as the role of “sound in art,” of the depictions of audio in various media (the sound effects in manga, for example) and the unintended sonic components of art beyond sound art, like the click and hum of a slide carousel or the overall sonic environment of a museum. Here’s video of Tristan Perich’s “Microtonal Wall” from the MoMA exhibit:


Playing with Audio: If everything is, indeed, a remix, that is a case most clearly made in music and experimental sound. From the field recordings that infuse much ambient music to the sampling of hip-hop to the rapturous creative reuse that proliferates on YouTube and elsewhere, music as raw material is one of the most exciting developments of our time. Terms like “remix” and “mashup” and “mixtape” can been seen to have originated or otherwise gained cachet in music, and as they expand into other media, we learn more about them, about the role such activities play in culture. And through the rise of audio-game apps, especially in iOS, such “playing with sound” has become all the more common — not just the work of musicians but of audiences, creating a kind of “active listening.” This notion of reuse, of learning about music and sound by how it is employed after the fact, plays a big role in my forthcoming book for the 33 1/3 series. My book is about Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and it will be published on February 13, 2014, just weeks ahead of the record’s 20th anniversary. As part of my research for the book, I spoke with many individuals who had come to appreciate the Aphex Twin album by engaging with it in their own work, from composers who had transcribed it for more “traditional” instruments (such as chamber ensembles and solo guitar), to choreographers and sound designers, to film directors.

Sounding Out Technology: A briefer version of the Disquiet.com approach is to look at “the intersection of sound, art, and technology.” The term “technology” is essential to that trio, because it was only when I learned to step back from my fascination with electronically produced music and to appreciate “electronic” as a subset of the vastly longer continuum of “technology” that connections became more clear to me — say, between the sonics of raves and the nascent polyphony of early church music, or between creative audio apps like Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers’ Bloom and what is arguably the generative ur-instrument: the aeolian harp. With both Bloom and the aeolian harp, along with its close relative the wind chime, music is less a fixed composition than a system that is enacted. As technology mediates our lives more and more, the role that sound plays in daily life becomes a richer and richer subject — from voice-enabled devices, to the sounds of consumer product design, to the scores created for electric cars:

Composing in Code: Of all the technologies to come to the fore in the past two decades, perhaps none has had an impact greater than computer code. This is no less true in music and sound than it is in publishing, film, politics, health, or myriad other fields. While the connections between mathematics and music have been celebrated for millennia, there is something special to how, now, those fields are combining, notably in graphic systems such as Max/MSP (and Max for Live, in Ableton) and Puredata (aka Pd), just to name two circumstances. Here, for reference, is a live video of the Dutch musician and sound artist Edo Paulus’ computer screen as he constructs and then performs a patch in Max/MSP. Where the construction ends and the performance begins provides a delightful koan:

All of which said, I’m not 100-percent clear what form my disquiet.gizmodo.com activity will take. I’m looking forward to experimenting in the space. I’ll certainly be co-posting material from Disquiet.com, but I’m also planning on engaging with Gizmodo itself, and with its broader network of sites. I’ve already, in advance of this post, begun re-blogging material from Gizmodo and from Gizmodo-affiliated sites: not just “sharing” (in the UI terminology of the Kinja CMS that powers the network) but adding some contextual information, thoughts, tangents, details. I’m enthusiastic about Kinja, in particular how it blurs the lines between author and reader. I like that a reply I make to a post about a newly recreated instrument by Leonardo Da Vinci can then appear in my own feed, leading readers back to the original site, where they themselves might join in the conversation. Kinja seems uniquely focused on multimedia as a form of commentary — like many CMS systems, it allows animated GIFs and short videos to serve as blog comments unto themselves, but it goes the step further of allowing users to delineate rectangular sub-sections of previously posted images and comment on those. I’m intrigued to see how sound can fit into that approach. (It’s no surprise to me that Kinja is innovative in this regard — it’s on Lifehacker that I first learned about the syntax known as “markdown.”) I think that all, cumulatively, makes for a fascinating media apparatus, and I want to explore it.

While I typed this post, it was Tuesday in San Francisco. I live in the Outer Richmond District, just north of Golden Gate Park and a little over a mile from the Pacific Ocean. The season’s first torrential rain has passed, and so the city sounds considerably more quiet than it did just a few days ago. No longer is the noise of passing automobiles amplified and augmented by the rush of water, and the roof above my desk is no longer being pummeled. But where there is the seeming peace of this relative quiet, there is also an increased diversity of listening material. The ear can hear further, as it were — not just to conversations in the street and to passing cars, but to construction blocks away, to leaf blowers, to a seaplane overhead, to the sound of a truck backing up at some considerable distance, and to the many birds that (unlike what I was accustomed to, growing up on the north shore of New York’s Long Island) do not all vacate the area come winter. It is shortly past noon as I hit the button to make this post go live. Church bells have sung a duet with the gurgling in my belly to remind me it is time for lunch. And because it is Tuesday, the city’s civic warning system has rung out. 

Dim sum, anyone?

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Digital Chamber Music

Attenuation and haze from Kenneth Kirschner

Kenneth Kirschner has posted one of his characteristically attenuated compositions to SoundCloud. It is a beautiful piece that hovers gracefully between the sonic realms of chamber music and digital synthesis. There are pulled bows and plinked keyboard notes, but also a wistful haze that is as if the surface noise of some moribund recording media had become part and parcel of the composition. The piece is titled “September 13, 2012,” as each of Kirschner’s works bears as its title the date of its completion.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/kennethkirschner. More from Kirschner at kennethkirschner.com.

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