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.

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Now on Slack.com: Disquiet Junto Discussion

A test run is underway of the popular messaging tool

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There is now a Slack team set up (at disquietjunto.slack.com) for Disquiet Junto discussion.

If you want to participate, send me your email address. I’m at marc@disquiet.com. Apparently Slack is invitation-based, so I need to send you an invite to join in.

The general idea for the Junto Slack is it’s a replacement for the discussion boards that were once quite active on SoundCloud, before the service mothballed them, and it’s a complement (or temporary stand-in) for the disquiet.com/forums, which are running on a somewhat antiquated platform (Vanilla Forums). The disquiet.com/forums will likely be upgraded at some point later this year to a better platform, but for now the Slack team is where Junto conversation will be focused — of course, there will still be plenty of talk on Twitter, which is where many of the initial core group of Junto participants first (virtually) met up, and elsewhere.

As of this moment there are 26 members of the Slack Junto, and there are 8 channels underway, pictured up top. We’ve been (re)introducing ourselves, talking about playlist curation as cultural participation, comparing physical and software modular synthesizers, and sharing videos of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Taylor Deupree, and others.

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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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The Year Ahead

As Disquiet.com approaches its 20th anniversary

Thinking ahead this year, some key priorities are

(1) getting this This Week in Sound email published weekly,

(2) finally getting the podcast going,

(2) updating Disquiet.com several times a day rather than just daily,

(3) getting some playlists of (commercial) music going on Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play Music (none of which have filled the sizable hole that Rdio’s disappearance has left),

(4) finishing a score to a science-fiction film I’m doing sound design and music supervision for (more on which later),

(5) getting my next semester of my class on the “role of sound in the media landscape” going (it starts the first week of February),

(6) finalizing “next book(s)” plans,

and … well, and more.

Current fixations: the not-quite-silences of conference calls … sound effects in comics … sound design of TV shows and film … making peace with the death of Rdio and trying to get into the groove with either Google Play Music, Apple Music, or Spotify …

This first appeared in the January 12, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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19 Years of Disquiet.com

Reflecting on reflecting

December 13, 1996, is the day I used a fax machine during a lunch break at a dotcom I’d joined a few months earlier, in order to send in an order for a URL, this URL: disquiet.com. The name comes from the book The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet.

Each year on December 13, if I have the time, I recount some memories of that time, and the time that has passed. On purpose, I don’t read previous entries while writing one of these semi-annual posts. I’m interested in what surfaces each year, what changes in emphasis may arise. These posts are as much objects of reflection as they are acts of reflection.

The main trajectory of Disquiet.com is as follows. It has several years of pre-history, as a series of FTP sites hosted at “~suffix” accounts at various ISPs. From its launch in 1996 through 1999 or so, Disquiet.com was largely a repository for work I’d already published elsewhere, primarily at Tower Records’ Pulse!, Classical Pulse!, and epulse magazines. At some point I was asked one time too many by someone when exactly I was posting something new to the site. I would generally explain, “Well, first I have to write something somewhere else, then wait for that publication date to pass considerably, and then I can upload the article to Disquiet.com.” Finally it occurred to me that I could just, you know, post something directly to Disquiet.com, bypassing prior publication. For reference, Webster’s English dictionary dates the origin of the word “blog” to 1999, before which we were all just typing cluelessly if excitedly in cyberspace.

In 1999 I moved to New Orleans from San Francisco, for what would last four years. The site came into its own in those years, with the introduction of datestamps and a more frequent occurence of publishing. I moved back to San Francisco in 2003, and continued to post regularly.

The next major change in the site was 2007, which was when, almost 11 years after launching the site, I finally began to add images to posts. Prior to 2007, it was text-only — straightedge ambient, no filigree. Somewhat ironically, the introduction of images to the site focused my ears. The first post with images was of a travel log of a trip to Japan, something I ported over from an early tumblr account I’d set up (sound.tumblr.com, which I occasionally turn back on, but have never found a consistent use for). With that travel log I began to emphasize sound as much as music. Also, 2007 is when the site was ported over from hand-coded HTML to WordPress — yeah, before 2007 I was coding not only the site but its RSS feed by hand.

The next major shift from that was 2011, when the WordPress theme was upgraded, by my friends at futurepruf.com, to be “responsive” (i.e., it works smoothly on phones, tablets, and full-size browser). 2012 saw the introduction of the Disquiet Junto series of weekly music projects (the 206th Junto project is underway as I type this), the start of the course I teach on sound at the Academy of Art here in San Francisco, and my signing a contract with the publisher Bloomsbury for a book on Aphex Twin’s album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, which was completed in 2013 and came out in 2014, the same year I had my first museum exhibit, at the San Jose Museum of Art.

As on any 19th anniversary, what’s particularly top of mind this year is next year, the 20th anniversary. I’d like to do something special for it.

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That Time I Interviewed Brian Eno in 1990

And John Cale, regarding their Wrong Way Up collaboration

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Twenty five years ago I stood on the rooftop of the Diva hotel in San Francisco and interviewed Brian Eno while a photographer did his best to take advantage of the light.

We were there to discuss Wrong Way Up, the album Eno had just released with John Cale of the Velvet Underground. I was on assignment for Down Beat magazine, and the article appeared in the January 1991 issue. I’ve just now uploaded it to Disquiet.com, backdating it to the original publication — hence this small note of its (re)appearance.

The record is a lot of fun, but apparently the daggers depicted on the cover were appropriate, as neither Eno nor Cale came away from it with warm feelings. Said Cale, whom I interviewed by phone:

“With Brian, I think what happened is that he would listen to what you said, but he really didn’t have much patience with it. His idea of listening to what you said was eventually, you know, slam the door and come out with a solution. I haven’t figured out yet what Brian’s notion of cooperation, or collaboration, is.”

Read the full piece: “Reconcilable Differences.” If I can track down my tapes of the interviews, I’ll transcribe them and post them, too.

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