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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tag: field-recording

Disquiet Junto Project 0199: Space Crickets

Make a field recording of a field recording in a spaceship.

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Each Thursday in the Disquiet Junto group on and at, 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 will be added to this playlist for the duration of the project:

This assignment was made in the evening, California time, on Thursday, October 22, 2015, with a deadline of 11:59pm wherever you are on Monday, October 26, 2015.

These are the instructions that went out to the group’s email list (at

Disquiet Junto Project 0199: Space Crickets
Make a field recording of a field recording in a spaceship.

Step 1: You’re going to make an original field recording. Use only your own recordings and those from copyright-OK sources, such as

Step 2: There’s a brief scene in the film Interstellar (2014, directed by Christopher Nolan) aboard a spacecraft in which it’s revealed that the pilot, played by Matthew McConaughey, calms himself by listening to a field recording of crickets and rain. There’s something intimate and reflective about that little sonic trinket of Earth being of use aboard an interstellar ship. In turn, we back here on the planet are going to make a field recording — a “fake” field recording, that is — for our own use. It should answer this question: What does it sound like to listen to a field recording of crickets and rain while aboard a spaceship? (For reference, you can view the scene here:

Step 3: Make the field recording described in Step 2.

Step 4: Then listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Deadline: This assignment was made in the evening, California time, on Thursday, October 22, 2015, with a deadline of 11:59pm wherever you are on Monday, October 26, 2015.

Length: The length of your finished work should be as long as you see fit.

Upload: Please when posting your track on SoundCloud, only upload one track for this assignment, and be sure to 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. Photos, video, and lists of equipment are always appreciated.

Title/Tag: When adding your track to the Disquiet Junto group on, please include the term “disquiet0199-spacecrickets” 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).

More on this 199th Disquiet Junto project (“Make a field recording of a field recording in a spaceship”) at:

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

Join the Disquiet Junto at:

Disquiet Junto general discussion takes place at:

The image associated with this project is a screenshot from the film Interstellar.

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The Outdoor Public Warning Nest

San Francisco's Tuesday noon siren becomes a Red-Tailed Hawk shelter


Every Tuesday at noon in San Francisco, the outdoor public warning system rings out across the city. There are 109 speakers in total as part of the OPWS, though these days only 108 of them are functioning. That’s because the one at the intersection of Taraval and Great Highway has, reports Rick Prelinger, been turned off. The Taraval siren isn’t broken. None of the sirens are broken. The whole point of the weekly siren test is to check and quickly repair any siren — any one of the four speakers that make up each of the 109 sirens — that isn’t functioning. The Taraval siren is silent because it has become a shelter for a family of Red-Tailed Hawk.

Prelinger, who gave me permission to post the photo shown up top, wrote on his Facebook page:

When I toured the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management on June 16 prior to my communications infrastructure talk that evening at Long Now’s Interval, I was told they’d turned off the emergency siren and speakers at Taraval and Great Highway so as not to disturb a nesting Red-Tailed Hawk. Of course I had to go and see what was going on.

(Update: He also clarified this morning that the nest may be empty by now.)

If you’ve never heard it, here’s a recording:

Here’s a shot of the tower at Taraval and Great Highway via Google Street view. This is facing north. A very short walk to the left and you hit the Pacific Ocean:

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Residents near Taraval and Geary needn’t worry too much for their safety. There are three other sirens within blocks. For reference, Taraval and Geary is number 78 in this chart, available as a PDF at the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management’s website, The actual number of sirens is a little unclear. The main site states 109, but there are 114 listed in that PDF and 111 in an accompanying list. Note that some, like the one at Taraval and Great Highway, double for tsunami warnings.

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Thanks to Rick Prelinger — associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and founder of the Prelinger Archives ( — for sharing the photo, and to Paul Socolow for alerting me to it. More on the sirens at For additional reading, last month the duo 52-Blue (Nick Sowers and Bryan Finoki) in their series ran a piece on the tainted, wartime history of the siren. My audio recording of the siren is at And for a recent shot of siren number 102, the one closest to my office, visit

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Two More Listeners

A recording engineer and a sound artist discuss making listening heard.


Earlier this week I posted responses I’d made to a series of questions about listening posed by Steve Ashby, who teaches music at Virginia Commonwealth University. Two more people have replied to Ashby’s questions, and I wanted to share segments of their thoughts here, both of them responding to the fourth, and core, question in Ashby’s survey: “How does one make their listening listened to?”

This is Bryan Walthall, a recording and mastering engineer who runs Stereo Image in Richmond, Virginia:

my perception of the way music sounds has changed greatly over the past 15 years. my favorite records when i was a kid (hendrix, nirvana) sound completely different! sometimes it breaks my heart because they don’t have the exact same magic they did when i was younger. its as if my “suspension of reality” has been diminished because I’ve seen the sausage being made for 15 years. for the most part they still evoke the same emotional response, but it has been diminished. i hear things completely different now, because i know how they were achieved. thats good for me making records, but the kid in me gets a little bummed sometimes that i can’t just listen to the song, i have to “hear the drums” or “know thats a plate and not a spring” or that “thats obviously a vocal double.”

This is the sound artist Stephen Vitiello. Up top is an image of visitors to one of his sound installations:

I mostly hope to achieve this in installation environments. Setting lighting in a space, comfortable seating, establishing a volume level and a speaker system that works well with the material are all important. Also, removing or minimizing visual distractions is vital – so that it is clear that in the work I’m presenting, sound is primary and not secondary to any sort of visual content. As I re-read these responses, it seems I’m hoping to create a space for the installations that goes back to what I used to create for myself when listening to a new record for the first time.

Ashby is archiving the responses at his website, and on his syllabus page at VCU’s site.

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Geonotating Interplaces

A work-in-progress from Jose Rivera (aka Proxemia) at MIT

Jose Rivera participates on SoundCloud under the name Proxemia. A graduate student at MIT, he studies “sound art, geonotational mapping, location recording, experimental music,” and posts audio from his various excursions. One recent track of Rivera’s is “interplace,” a highly detailed sequence of largely drone- and rattle-rich “location recordings,” in his terminology. The phrase suggests something distinct from field recordings, perhaps — something with a more precise sense of position and place. A brief liner note explains that it’s a “composition experiment” for what appears to be the Sensory Ethnography Lab at neighboring Harvard. The lab “promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography,” and is run by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ernst Karel. Past geonotational efforts by Rivera have included audio-visual documentation of natural and industrial spots in Asheville, North Carolina (which surface in a Disquiet Junto project), among other places.

Track originally posted at More from Rivera/Proxemia at

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Listeners on Listening

Four questions about sharing one's personal experience with music and sound.

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Steve Ashby, who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently asked me four questions about listening. Ashby is posing these same four questions to a variety of people. The questions are all about listening, and the answers are intended to inform a music-appreciation course that he teaches at VCU. As I worked on my responses to his questions I asked him some questions — yeah, interview an interviewer and you inevitably get interviewed back — for some background on his teaching. He explained:

I’ve noticed in the classes that I teach, as soon as I start playing a piece of music, say Mozart, Bach, what have you, the students’ attention drifts back to their phone, or other distraction. For all intents and purposes, making the music essentially white noise. … I thought maybe getting perspectives on listening from the music community might be useful. With a handful of perspectives from people in different realms of the music industry, we might be able to find a common thread that opens up new avenues of what it means to listen to music.

The first couple years teaching the course I followed the standard blueprint of an overview lecture through music history, from Chant to Stravinsky. Glazed over eyes, and too many PowerPoints, made me realize I need to rethink this. What’s the point of talking about specific music forms and terminology, when students’ ears aren’t tuned in or turned on to the sound surrounding them. Sounds and music outside of their comfort zone. As one of my guitar teachers used to say, you’ve got to create the space, before you can fill it.

Ashby also mentioned the musician Lawrence English, Simon Scott’s Below Sea Level album, the field recorder Gordon Hempton, and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer as influences on his thinking, and in particular how a recent read of Peter Szendy’s Listen — this line in particular: “Can one make a listening listened to? Can I transmit my listening, unique as it is?” — had woken his ears to the sounds around him:

Bitten by the field recording bug, I began recording my walks to work, around town, outside my apartment, and noticed a big difference in what I heard at the time versus what was recorded. Remembering each step, but hearing my breath and surroundings differently. (The cicadas were loud this summer.)

Below are his four questions and my responses. If you’re interesting in participating, certainly feel free to in the comments below. Ashby has been part of the Guitar Faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University for a decade, and has taught music appreciation for nearly half of that.

1. You buy a new album. Describe your ritual/experience of its first listening.

I’m not sure I have a ritual, aside from listening to it as soon as possible. Most of the music I purchase I do so digitally, and when I purchase physical albums (CD, vinyl, cassette) I generally do so online. The latter often come with a download code, which means I have a digital copy before the physical copy even arrives in the mail. In fact, the most recent cassette tape I purchased — at a record store across town — came with a download code, and I downloaded it to my phone while taking the bus back home. Come to think of it, I only have a cassette player at my office, not at home, so it’s a darn good thing the cassette had that download code. Otherwise I would have had to wait a few days. Anyhow, I purchase music in such varied circumstances, I can’t say I have much of a ritual, again aside from listening to it as soon as possible. I will add that the more excited I am about a release, the more I try to diminish my expectations in advance of hitting the play button. One genre-specific ritual I have is that I listen to a lot of film music, and I try to listen to a movie’s score before I go to the theater to see it. A side note: I get an enormous amount of music for free, because I write about music and work with musicians, which means my inbox and my mailbox are inundated with, respectively, zip files and packages. I have music playing most of the day, less so in the evening. When I’m intrigued by a piece of music, I’ll often put it on repeat, sometimes for hours. The most extreme version of this is when I wrote my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which took about a year, just about every day of which I listened to one track off the record over and over.

2. On subsequent listens to that same record, which aspects of the music do you focus your listening on. Does this change over time? How?

If there’s a track I like a lot at first, I’ll try to avoid it for awhile. After a few listens to an album, I’ll often put the album on shuffle, so I can listen to the tracks more remotely, more apart from each other. The biggest influence on how my listening changes over time is physical circumstances. I am amazed how different headphones, different speakers, different moods can change how a record sounds. (In the photo at the top of this post, the large black headphones are the ones I use at home, and the metal earbuds are the ones I use when I’m out and about. I also have some noise-canceling headphones for plane flights.)

3. If you could choose your favorite listening environment, what would it be? What draws you to that place to hear the music you’re listening to?

I like to listen to music in lots of different contexts. The primary places I listen to music are at my desk at home, at my desk at my office, in my living room at home, in my kitchen at home, while walking, and while on the bus. If I had to choose one favorite, it’d be wearing headphones while alone on the bus, enjoying the clarity that headphones provide, and the way music shapes everyday experience into a narrative. There’s nothing like taking a mundane bus trip while listening to a score fom a science fiction film or a thriller.

4. How does one make their listening listened to?

To take a step back, I should clarify my sense of the word “listening,” because it happens to be a word I use a lot. I teach a course on the role of sound in the media landscape at an art school, and I spend the first three weeks of the 15-week course discussing listening. To me, listening, clearly, applies broadly to the everyday experience of being in the world, of hearing the world. In fact, it’s hard for me to separate that sense of the word from the more specific context we’re working with here, where we’re mostly talking about listening to music. That said, there is, I think, a helpful transition from the “active listening” that I think of in regard to everyday life, to listening to music. There are lots of ways to make one’s listening listened to. I’ll describe four here, the first three of which I participate in, and the last being one I like to observe.

A. Dorm Space: For me, the single best social scenario for listening to listening to music — when my listening was listened to — was back in college, and it’s probably not repeatable in my daily life as an adult. I had a single dorm room my junior and my senior year, and I was always listening to music when I was in it. It became my habit in senior year to just leave my door open, and invariably people would walk through the hallway, hear something, and come in. There were frequently two or more people in my room in addition to me, listening to whatever I was listening to, sometimes while I was doing my homework. I think my listening then was kind of “performative.” I would talk about what was playing, move back and forth between records. My dorm room was like the world’s smallest radio station, one that broadcast only a few feet beyond the station’s doorway.

B. Radio DJ: I also DJ’d in college, in the radio sense of the word “DJ,” and I think DJing in that radio sense of the word is a fine example of having your listening listened to. I had a jazz show that was pretty straightforward, and a classical show, which was a mix of contemporary music and ancient vocal music, and where the two things often met — Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening and Steve Reich’s Tehilim feel very comfortable next Byrd and Palestrina. I also did a more freeform show, which would broaden the classical material to add in pop and rock that smacked of minimalism: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Brian Eno’s solo ambient stuff, lots of Robert Fripp, Fela, King Sunny Ade, and so on. Making connections between those records, whether simply by playing them in sequence or commenting on them after one track ended and before the next began, was a way of putting those connections in the listener’s head as to what I heard in the music, what I was listening to, listening for, in the music.

C. Music Criticism: I have written about music since I was in high school, and I think of writing about music as a means to express what I hear. It’s the primary way that I express my listening. This is recursive. To write about music, I need to think about my own listening — I need to listen to my listening — and that reflection then becomes the raw material for what I write. The single best advice I ever got in regard to writing about music was to use the writing to help explain how to listen to the music — not that there’s necessarily one way to listen to a piece of music.

D. Music About Music: All bands, the saying goes, begin as cover bands. This isn’t to say that every band is literally a cover band, performing some other band’s songs. What it means is that all bands begin with their influences plainly apparent, perhaps as homage, often as denied imitation, and then the good ones proceed over time to develop their own identity. Much music is built from pre-existing sound: sample-based hip-hop, quotations in jazz, electronic music that employs field recordings and presets (presets being audio and other tools that come as part of digital instruments). Just because the source audio remains evident in some of this work doesn’t mean that the artist has not fully consumed the material. But stepping back from even the most artfully assembled piece, like Steve Reich’s “It’s Gonna Rain” or the Dust Brothers’ production of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, one has the opportunity to hear how the musicians hear, what it is they listen for, what sorts of sounds register with their ears and align with their creative impulses. If you listen closely to their acts of sampling you can listen to them listening.

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