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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Sounding out technology.
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tag: gadget

Playing a Tape Cassette by Hand

Listening to a new device, the HC-TT

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This little device, called the HC-TT, is a “human controlled tape transport.” It plays standard tape cassettes with no motor, no automation. The only power is a turn of that large knob. The knob moves backward and forward, allowing for gestural effects, as demoed in this Instagram from the account of the manufacturer, the Brooklyn-based Landscape:

A video posted by Landscape (@landscape_hc_tt) on

In this next example, it’s paired with a looping machine, the Elektron Octatrack:

A video posted by Landscape (@landscape_hc_tt) on

There’s a large set of audio examples at Landscape’s SoundCloud account, drawing from flamenco, hip-hop, business self-help, and other sound sources:

The tape cassette has proved to be a useful tool for musicians in recent years to inexpensively release physical documents of their recordings. It’s also prevalent as an instrument, for such things as old-school tape echo and looping, thanks to both reclaimed reel-to-reel systems and cassettes. The HC-TT brings a modern, gadget-maker ingenuity to the medium.

More on the HC-TT at hc-tt.com. It ships with a power supply and “one randomly selected old cassette tape.”

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What the Creators of the Monome Sound Like as Live Performers

Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree recorded live in San Francisco (February 2016)

Update (April 3, 2016): The SoundCloud account of half of the Monome duo mentioned below, Kelli Cain, today uploaded a higher-quality recording of the same concert:

The original post appears below.

The developers of the Monome have shepherded not just a series of refined devices, including their namesake grid and a growing number of synthesizer modules, but a community that makes music with them and software for them.

That Monome community largely gathers at llllllll.co, a discussion site, but occasionally there are opportunities to meet up in person. About a month back, on February 19, Monome’s Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree, who are based in upstate New York, performed as a duo at a tiny shop in San Francisco’s Outer Richmond neighborhood. The audio for that set is now available as a free download from shop’s SoundCloud account (soundcloud.com/betterforliving).

I was at the show, and can confirm the audio captures the songs well. It’s a series of gentle, folktronic pieces, each with a trance-like quality. Certainly there in the mix are the soft looping synthesizer sounds often associated with the Monome, but there’s also a sweet vocal thread, the pair harmonizing like adjunct members of Low or of Iron and Wine. The acoustic shaker heard early on in this half-hour set is one of several that come out of Cain’s work in ceramics (see: kellicain.com).

At the show Crabtree had several of the shakers on the table. He’d shake one for awhile, and then pass it to someone in the audience to continue the pattern. Each person became an extension of what Crabtree had started, but then altered it a little, whether through the conscious decision to contribute a musical idea, or simply because their sense of rhythm differed from his. Either way, the passing around of the shakers was a masterful example of the real (that is, physical) world reflecting something intrinsic to electronic culture (looping), all occurring in the context of a makeshift community (in this case the few dozen attendees).

Here are two shots I took at the time and that I posted the day after the show at llllllll.co:

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Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/betterforliving. More on the Monome, Cain, and Crabtree at monome.org.

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This Week in Sound: Exposed Speakers + Paramusical Ensemble

+ AM-less e-cars + muting Istanbul

A lightly annotated clipping service — and because I was prepping for the second week of class, this week’s This Week in Sound is a bit more rangy and a bit more cursory. Then again, maybe it should be more rangy and cursory in the first place:

Brain Tunes: The New York Times reports on MIT research that seeks to codify the human experience of music: “By mathematically analyzing scans of the auditory cortex and grouping clusters of brain cells with similar activation patterns, the scientists have identified neural pathways that react almost exclusively to the sound of music.” As C. Reider noted on Twitter, the definition of music in the research is peculiarly limited. Reider points to this section of the piece: “When a musical passage is played, a distinct set of neurons tucked inside a furrow of a listener’s auditory cortex will fire in response. … Other sounds, by contrast — a dog barking, a car skidding, a toilet flushing — leave the musical circuits unmoved.” Alex Temple put it well: “If people are still saying this over 100 years after Russolo’s ‘The Art of Noise,’ they’re probably never going to stop.” And Nick Sowers: “Sorry NY Times, my musical circuits are also moved by dog barks and car skids. Maybe not toilet flushes tho.”

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Paramusic Union: The feel-good music-tech story of the week must be that of Rosemary Johnson (telegraph.co.uk), a violinist whose career was stopped short due to a car crash that left her severely disabled, unable to speak or even move. But after a decade of effort at Plymouth University and the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in London, Johnson is now producing music through technology that lets her control computer equipment with her brain. The photo above shows Johnson and three other disabled individuals who, along with the Bergersen String Quartet, form what they call the Paramusical Ensemble.

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Umbrella Stands: The fact is every week I could feature one or another new work of sound art whose visual impact results from a preponderance of speakers — and I probably will. This week’s, above, is of an installation, Re-Rain, created by Kouichi Okamoto and on display at the Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art in Shizuoka City, Japan. Each speaker emits the sound of rain, which is reflected off the inside of the umbrellas: thecreatorsproject.vice.com.

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Lagos Sonics: Speaking of exposed speakers, above is a shot from the washingtonpost.com site on Emeka Ogboh’s “Market Symphony,” a new work displayed at the National Museum of African Art. The speakers, which play sounds from Balogun Market in Lagos, and elsewhere in Nigeria, are installed on “colorful enamelware trays” of the sort found in the market. It’s the museum’s first sound installation. (I may be in D.C. at some point in the next few weeks, and if I get there I hope to check out this exhibit.)

Muting Istanbul: Imagine being able to mute or amplify individual elements from what constitute a city’s soundscape. Ateş Erkoç has produced such an installation in Istanbul as part of the exhibit Everyday Sounds: Exploring Sound Through Daily Life: dailysabah.com.

AM Unplugged: Apparently the mechanics of electrical cars don’t go well with AM radio, reports music3point0.blogspot.com: “cars like the Tesla Model X or BMW i3 don’t install them since the AM reception is impossible due to the internal electrical noise of the car” — via motherboard.vice.com, twitter.com/jeffkolar.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the February 9, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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A Mixtape Singularity

Burning to CD a tape of vinyl in the age of streaming

I’m ripping old cassette mixtapes and burning them to CD for a friend’s birthday party, marking a significant milestone — the party, not the ripping. It used to take a long time to rip a CD, almost as long as it did to listen to one. Then it took very little time at all. At some point the digital process sped up so much that the CD itself essentially disintegrated, or at least its utility did. That is, you no longer needed the CD at all. Audio had, in a manner, reached a singularity. Digital had accelerated to the point where you bypassed the physical medium entirely, and you listened directly to the digital audio file on a device that both stored and played back the file. The intermediary CD, that mirror-faced descendant of the vinyl LP and the tape cassette, was no longer a requisite.

Where streaming sits along or alongside this continuum remains a little unclear. Streaming is more like radio than it is like a recording medium. Radio can be said to have experienced its own parallel acceleration toward a singularity: optimization through automation of commercial broadcasts. Commercial radio went, over time, from a freeform medium to one managed by human beancounters, to one managed by algorithmic beancounters. At some point the algorithm decided for us — not unlike humanity’s helicopter parent at the center of D.F. Jones’s anxious artificial-intelligence novel Colossus, published in 1966, same year as the first Association for Computing Machinery Turning Prize — that the optimal ’cast scenario wasn’t broad-cast at all. Instead, the algorithm proclaimed beneficently, we should all stream what we want to stream.

In many instances, thousands upon thousands of people might be listening to the exact same song at roughly the same time, but off by a matter of seconds or minutes. Somewhere right now thousands upon thousands of people are listening to the latest momentarily popular verse-chorus-verse assemblage about failed or expectant romance. If we were able to listen to them all at once it would be a mutant version of the original: repeated, layered, looping back on itself, reaching crescendos of volume during peak listening, and fading out when the majority of the population in the target audience — Central Time Zone in North America, perhaps — happens to be asleep.

That communal sound, if we had access to it — if, say, the Spotify API could let us sync and produce such a pop-music ambient surveillance apparatus — might produce an apt sonic portrait of what it means to listen in culture, to listen to culture, at this moment. Imagine observing Spotify activity the way a service like Listen to Wikipedia (listen.hatnote.com), by Mahmoud Hashemi and Stephen LaPorte, allows us to observer activity on the global communal encyclopedia: we wouldn’t be listening to Spotify so much as Listening to Listening to Spotify.

I have a dream where observing that streaming process becomes not just technically possible but genuinely popular, and pop music itself mutates to match the new norm. Songs as we known them would slowly disappear, replaced by rich, long miasmas: a slow-motion, longitudinal EDM of ambient pop. Paul Lamere is the Director of Developer Platform at Echonest, a division of Spotify. I asked him this past week if my dream API scenario could be implemented, and he said the current API doesn’t necessarily support it, but he pointed me to a visualization tool called Serendipity coded by Kyle McDonald during an arts residency there. McDonald’s Serendipity depicts pairs of people listening, per chance, to the same track within seconds of each other across the globe.

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As for the ripping and burning of cassette tapes to CDs, it’s proceeding at its own, antediluvian pace. It’s very fast to burn a CD, but the tape needs to be recorded at its original speed. I have no fancy, double-speed cassette player, just this old stereo-system component. There are no functional silences on the tape, at least not by contemporary standards. In regard to these mixtapes, this isn’t simply because of the static of the tape’s own surface noise. It’s because the tape was itself second generation: most of these tracks were copied from LPs, so the CD versions are replicating not just the tape noise, but the vinyl noise, as well as whatever file-format compression is involved on the digital side of things. The residual file-format artifact is inaudible to me, and probably to most people. Perhaps down the road we’ll be able “hear” that something was an MP3 or a Wav or a FLAC file the way, today, we can “hear” that something was vinyl or tape. The idea that a skill like that would become commonplace seems futuristic, but then again the idea of burning one’s own digital media once seemed futuristic — and now burning one’s own digital media doesn’t just seem antiquated; it is antiquated.

The original reason to make these tapes was just to have some dusty musical memories playing at the party, but it’s clear now that the music is only part of the memory process. The tape hiss and the vinyl crackle will provide their own ambience, as will the physical act of putting one of these CDs into a CD player. (A thumb drive is being filled up, too, just in case. In the world of Spotify playlists — and, yes, Apple Music and Google Play Music, among others — tiny portable hard drives are simply another, more recent antiquity.) The physical act of putting a CD into a player will initiate a surface hiss that will summon the physical act of putting a tape in a tape player, and in that tape noise there will appear the sound of a needle touching vinyl, triggering yet another memory of physical activity. Audio has passed its singularity, and in our post-physical listening mode we now hear echoes of our earlier, embodied listening. Nostalgia may be as much a fool’s game as is futurism, but heck, that’s what birthdays are for.

Right now, though, I’m just watching in a software program called Audacity to keep an eye on the audio levels of the source tape. When they flatline, I’ll know the tape is through.

This first appeared in the January 26, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Music for Doorbells

Liner notes I wrote for the new Jeff Kolar album

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Jeff Kolar’s new album, on the Panospria label, is all about doorbells. Titled Doorbell, it’s a series of recordings he made — music for doorbells — that follows up an earlier exploration he made of the smoke alarm. I wrote the liner notes for Doorbell, which is a free download:

“Welcome Music”

For whom does the doorbell toll? On the one hand, it is an alert for the inhabitant of a building. The bell rings, and that ring lets the inhabitant know that a delivery, a friend, a colleague, or some other visitor has arrived. On the other hand, the bell is a confirmation for the visitors that their presence has, in fact, been registered.

The doorbell is, thus, both ringtone and ringback simultaneously. The doorbell’s ringtone is, to some extent, the choice of the inhabitant, though the number of people who ever elect to fine-tune their doorbell’s sound is likely quite small. The ringback — “a sound made by a cellular phone that is heard by a person who is calling that phone while waiting for the call to be connected” — is a muted version of the doorbell. It is the doorbell heard through the door, shaped by the resonance of the hall in which it first resounds.

It took the artist Jeff Kolar, an obsessive sonic explorer, not only to fine-tune his doorbell sounds, but to record them himself. Kolar’s body of work is steeped in noise so quotidian that it is effectively ignored by, if not inaudible to, most people. Many doorbells can trace their tones back to bells and chimes. Kolar, instead, used a Yamaha organ to construct his dozen rings. The results range from mantra-like beading drones, to haunted-house chords, to swelling wah-wah, to subtle stepwise waveforms.

Kolar’s doorbells first took shape as actual doorbells, hung on a gallery wall, waiting for visitors to trigger them. Only later were they collected as recordings for anyone to stream, download, even — if they have the maker bug — to install at the entrance to their own homes and businesses. As such, the work builds on Kolar’s previous efforts with blissfully mundane aural subjects, such as his study of the fierce sonic textures of smoke detectors. That piece, like his doorbells, began in a gallery and was later documented as a record album. The doorbells also share a kinship with Kolar’s ongoing engagement with that most ubiquitous and ephemeral of sonic mediums: radio waves.

The sounds of Kolar’s doorbells have many inherent associations, but the organ, with its explicit churchly stature, seems to nudge forward one association in particular: the arrival of an evangelical missionary dead-set on sharing salvation.

Marc Weidenbaum
San Francisco
October 2015

Kolar provides a bit more information in the accompanying note:

Doorbell is permanently installed as a ringable doorbell system outside of the Urban Gray Ballroom in Greensboro, North Carolina. Each of the twelve Doorbell tracks are designed to loop continuously. This project was produced for the “Museum as Instrument” residency curated by Shannon Stratton and Joe Jeffers at Elsewhere Museum in July 2015.

Album originally posted on December 10, 2015, at archive.org, and then at soundcloud.com/jeffkolar. The surreal cover art is by Aleia Murawski. More from Kolar at jeffkolar.us.

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