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

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: score

The “Negative Music” of The Good Wife

A nuanced television show's focus on television, among other media.

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This April 5 episode of The Good Wife (“Loser Edit”) opened with a purposefully bland testimonial montage on the good fortune of the title character, Alicia Florrick. The episode prior, Florrick had won a statewide election. “Loser Edit” opened with a recap of her career, which is to say of The Good Wife itself, now well into its sixth season. The camera eventually backed up, revealing that we were watching not a commercial within the show, but a piece of television journalism within the show. It backed up further and we recognized that we were seeing the journalism being constructed, in real time, in a television studio.

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The Good Wife often plays with its audience’s expectations. It will return from a commercial break into the middle of a fake TV commercial, or a YouTube-ish “viral” video, or a bit of “native” web advertising, or some other bit of transient media, forcing the viewer to sort out where exactly we are in the story, from whose perspective we’re experiencing the narrative, before yanking us back into the action. The Good Wife puts the “media” in “In medias res.” When the title character occasionally gets a night off, she can be found sitting at home alone watching a parody, titled Darkness at Noon, of the sort of existential anti-hero machismo that gets shows like True Detective and The Shield so much critical attention. The episode the week prior, in which Florrick’s season-long race in a state election was decided, the TV newscaster within the show told the audience — including Florrick herself, seated on a couch in front of a TV — that they would have to wait until after a commercial break before being told the race’s outcome. And then The Good Wife itself took a commercial break.

With its married and divorced middle-aged characters and its presence on CBS, traditionally the grayest of the major American broadcast networks, the show is often misperceived as a rote legal and marital procedural. It is anything but. What it’s especially good at is tracking the use of media, social and otherwise, in the lives and careers of its characters. Sometimes technology takes center stage, as in a running sequence that involved NSA surveillance; this was structured as if a bleak hipster sitcom had been posited within the drama. There have been legal battles on the show involving a search engine and bitcoin, not to mention the illegal editing of email metadata.

The credit due The Good Wife isn’t merely related to the breadth or the frequency or the variety of its stabs at how media mediates life and work. What’s exceptional about The Good Wife is the detail that it brings to its depiction of how technology by both chance and intent influences, often for the worst, life and work and, most specifically, politics.

In “Loser Edit” we watch as the bit of career-recap news is first pitched as a generally favorable overview and then, with the sudden arrival of a slew of damaging emails, as an act of ambush journalism. When the timbre of the still-in-progress story shifts from biography to admonition, the producer of the bit is shown back in the studio with her editor. Earlier in the episode they had left the Florrick character alone in color, against an otherwise black and white photo. Now they switch the emphasis, leaving her alone in black and white, amid a color setting. We watch as, with a simple shift in color coding, they entirely alter the meaning of the photo. The Good Wife is the rare show on television that shows people working on computers in a manner that actually is how people work on computers. We see colors being adjusted and photos being manipulated and text being edited with everyday tools.

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And at this moment in “Loser Edit,” the editor dips into a folder of generic background music and switches to a file titled “Negative Music” from one titled “Positive Music.” The sheer, brazen laziness of the action — the sad binary of “positive” and “negative” — speaks volumes of the journalist and her ilk, and though it’s a split-second instant in the overall episode, it also speaks volumes of the intricacy of The Good Wife and the attention of the folks who make it.

“Loser Edit” was directed by Brooke Kennedy, who has also directed episodes of Fringe and My So-Called Life, among other dramas. She has directed many solid entries in The Good Wife, including “Live from Damascus,” back in season 3. That’s the episode in which Will Gardner, the main love interest of the title character (that is, aside from her husband), learned that he was going to be brought up on charges that might lead to his disbarment. At that moment in the episode there is a subtle shift in the background music. A party is going on elsewhere in the law offices, and it is ominously muted, going from joyful to foreboding, as Gardner is faced with the imminent legal action. I was so struck by the moment at the time, that I tracked down Kennedy and interviewed her about it. I was especially interested in speaking with her because of her work on Fringe, which also made great regular use of sound as part of the narrative.

Kennedy spoke to me by telephone about how different television directors manage sound differently: “Just in general,” she said, “when it comes to television, there are certain directors who go in with sound design and have at least some sense of it, and there are others who go in with nothing and put it in at the end. The way you can tell the two, truly, is somebody who shoots more insert work. People who shoot insert I find tend to hear sounds and they want to incorporate that into storytelling. A spoon hitting a glass — it’s that moment; they want to take a moment. Others who don’t do any of that, you find that they don’t think in terms of sound.”

She helpfully walked back through the sequence in the “Live from Damascus” episode: “That entire scene is constructed as things that are happening off stage, so in the center of the offices there’s the party and music is changing constantly. I think we use almost three to four songs and the idea that the party gets more raucous as it goes on, and then every time the sound changes where the proximity of Will is to the party. Then you have to add into that his emotional weight that happens at the end. You want to nurture that. We’re playing with sound through glass. That in itself is rather complicated. They walk down the hall, the door opens, he comes in and closes that door and then we pretty much changed the volume. There are maybe one or two tones in the end in there just to make sure we’re going out on an emotional beat.”

In the course of our conversation, Kennedy touched on an example of how The Good Wife distinguishes itself from other shows: “Most television would have picked a piece of source music for that scene and basically at the end raised the source music so you’re given what to think by the vocals of the song. We actually went the opposite way and wanted to hear the ringing-in his-head kind of thing.”

In other words, the attention to sound that is a hallmark of The Good Wife is very much the opposite of the work characterized by the news segment at the center of the “Loser Edit” episode. The title of the episode refers both to the shift in tone in the segment and to the fate of its news-production team, but it might also be read to refer to a less ambitious, if widely practiced, realm of audio-visual storytelling.

Alone, the “Negative Music” moment in “Loser Edit” is simply a smile-inducing instance for those who happen to catch it. But in the broader scope of Kennedy’s work and of The Good Wife in general, it’s a testament to the shortcuts that the show itself does not take, the way it engages with its own topicality, and the attention it pays to — and shares with — its audience.

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All screenshots from the episode “Loser Edit.” Thanks to Lauren Franklin for assistance with transcription of the Kennedy interview.

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This Week in Sound: SoundCloud, Replicants, Comedy, Surveillance

An occasional, lightly annotated clipping service

One-Track Mind: SoundCloud recently added a “repeat single track” function to its web player. This means that if you’re listening to something on SoundCloud you can click a button to have it repeat when it ends, rather than have the service automatically move on to another track. This is a very welcome turn of events. When it comes to audio streaming, we often don’t really hear something the first time we hear it, and often get lost in the continuity. The ability to repeat a single track in some ways having a chance to really pay attention through repetition.
http://disquiet.com/2014/12/01/soundcloud-single-track-repeat/

Replicant Soundscape: Speaking of listening on repeat, this following track has been online since August, but I only just learned of it via an io9.com post about a related subject. The account of “crysknife007″ on YouTube is filled with great “ambient geek sleep aids” such as the sound of the Starship Enterprise’s engines running for 24 hours straight. What follows is the sound of Rick Deckard’s apartment in Blade Runner playing for half a day, so you can imagine you’re a cyberpunk gumshoe when you’re really just sitting at home paying some bills. Though YouTube comments are rightly avoided, a useful follow-up to the track did note that this same sound was later used in Alien for the Nostromo’s medical bay.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7FhEpif1cA

Ambient Comedy: The BBC has produced a retrospective of Chris Morris (Blue Jam, Four Lions), the British satirist. I had very much hoped to interview Morris for my recent book on the Aphex Twin album Selected Ambient Works Volume II because he used music from the album in his radio and television sketches to especially haunting effect, but sadly he wasn’t available. The BBC retrospective is three hours long and, according to the BBC webpage, will be online for another four weeks:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04sp5pq

New Heights in Eavesdropping: A thorough overview of the U.S. government’s system “Automatic Speech recognition in Reverberant Environments,” aka ASpIRE, an advance speech-recognition tool.
http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2014/12/what-happens-when-spies-can-eavesdrop-any-conversation/100142/

This first appeared in the December 2, 2014, edition of the free Disquiet email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Disquiet Junto Project 0151: Reliving Dead

The Assignment: Score a segment of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead using the movie's audio as source material.

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Each Thursday in the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud.com and at Disquiet.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.

This assignment was made in the evening, California time, on Thursday, November 20, with 11:59pm on the following Monday, November 24, 2014, as the SoundCloud deadline — though the encouraged optional video part of the assignment can wait a day or two longer, if necessary.

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

Disquiet Junto Project 0151: Reliving Dead
The Assignment: Score a segment of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead using the movie’s audio as source material.

Step 1: Download the classic film Night of the Living Dead, which is in the public domain, at the following URL:

http://goo.gl/rm1lMy

Step 2: Locate a short segment of interest, between 1 and 3 minutes, in which there is no musical score present.

Step 3: Compose a score for your chosen segment using only the audio from that segment as the source material. You can alter the source audio in any way you choose. You just can’t add any new sounds.

Step 4: Upload the finished track to the Disquiet Junto group on SoundCloud.

Step 5: Listen to and comment on tracks uploaded by your fellow Disquiet Junto participants.

Step 6: This part is optional, and you can take an additional couple of days if you need them. Upload the video segment combining the original audio and your score, and link to it from the notes field in your SoundCloud track.

Length: Your finished work should be between 1 and 3 minutes long, depending entirely on the length of the segment you selected.

Deadline: This assignment was made in the evening, California time, on Thursday, November 20, with 11:59pm on the following Monday, November 24, 2014, as the deadline.

Upload: Please when posting your track on SoundCloud, only upload one track for this assignment, and 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 “disquiet0151-relivingdead” 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 151st Disquiet Junto project — “Score a segment of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead using the movie’s audio as source material” — at:

http://disquiet.com/2014/11/20/disquiet0151-relivingdead/

More on the Disquiet Junto at:

http://disquiet.com/junto

Join the Disquiet Junto at:

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

Disquiet Junto general discussion takes place at:

http://disquiet.com/forums/

Image from the George Romero film Night of the Living Dead.

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Cliff Martinez’s Music for The Knick

Electronics connect past to present

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As @compactrobot put it succinctly on Twitter, what works especially well for Cliff Martinez’s score to The Knick is that it’s a “nice choice to go with electronics for a period drama.” In many ways, the use of Martinez’s pulsing, blippy sounds to accompany a story about the dawn of modern surgery, set in New York City in the year 1900, connects the innovations to the past to the data-driven efficiencies of the present. In a way, it’s the reverse of Sherlock, in which the emphasis on string instruments in the score connect the contemporary Holmes story to the original character. Milan Records, which is releasing the score to the first season, has posted three tracks. They’re more in the Tangerine Dreamy style of Martinez’s work on Contagion and Drive than the in the ambient mode of his sex, lies, and videotape and Solaris. Steven Soderbergh, who directed all those films with the exception of Drive, is the creative force behind The Knick.

In an interview with Adam Bryant at tvguide.com, Martinez explains how a particular aspect of his style made its way into this period piece:

“The most important thing that Steven usually does that outlines the approach is that he sends me a rough cut of the picture. The big curveball in The Knick was that temporary music [he used] as he was editing — he was using my music from Drive and Contagion and Spring Breakers, which was a surprise because it didn’t acknowledge the period whatsoever. In fact, it kind of went in the opposite direction,” Martinez tells TVGuide.com. “At first it seemed like a risk because the whole idea of the show was to try to put the viewer in 1900 in New York and everything was pulling in that direction except for the music. I had a phone call with Steven and then I just said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ He said, ‘Yeah. It’s going to be all electronic. It’s going to be modern. That’s intentional.’ And after a few weeks, it had become the sound of the show.”

Tracks originally posted at soundcloud.com/milanrecords.

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disquiet.gizmodo.com

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:

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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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