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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An Arduino Fountain in “Plein Air”

An essay for Autodesk artist-in-residence Paolo Salvagione


There is a tremendous artist-in-residence program at Autodesk, the San Francisco Bay area software firm responsible for the tools used worldwide by architects and engineers. The artists in the residence program push those same tools past their intended uses. Several friends of mine have had residencies there, among them Paolo Salvagione. I have written many essays to accompany Paolo’s art work, the latest being this piece, “Plein Air,” which relates to a his “String Fountain,” show above, which uses an Arduino (a “physical computer”) that “controls the vertical and horizontal tilt and rotation using the two bilateral servos,” as described in a short feature by Filip Visnjic at The image here is of the letterpress print of the essay, designed by Brian Scott of Boon Design and printed at the Aesthetic Union here in San Francisco. This shot is from Boon’s Instagram account. For you Pantone fetishists, the color is 3135U.


Tonight, January 22, there’s a group show by over 40 current and past Autodesk artists at the residency site, at Pier 9 in San Francisco. It’s from 5pm to 9pm.

There’s a full “instructable” of how to do it yourself. Here’s a short video of the work:

“Plein Air”

Imagine you purchased a Rembrandt painting. Imagine you came into possession of a Calder mobile. Imagine you now own a Cardiff, specifically her multi-speaker choral array. There are wood boxes on your doorstep and insurance forms to sign. You haven’t seen this many white gloves since your high school prom.

And now where, precisely, do you install these works of art? Does the light in your home’s foyer do justice to Rembrandt’s shadows, or does the midday sun render them moot? Is there any breeze in your den, or does the colorful kinetic sculpture simply hang in the air, decidedly immobile? Do you even have space for the speakers, three dozen plus, anywhere other than your garage, and if so do you henceforth feel at a loss pumping Tallis through your automobile’s mere 5.1 system when you’re on the road?

A work of art may hang singularly on a wall — descend from the ceiling, center an otherwise empty room — in a manner that suggests it as a standalone object. A work of art may come pre-packaged as a sui generis subject of hermetic contemplation.

But no art is an island. All art is part of a bigger picture. All art arrives with its own baggage, and accumulates additional baggage as the years progress — artist’s statement, initial cultural context, socio-economic footprints of provenance documentation, exhibit text, installation requirements, six degrees of curatorial association, revisionist history, originalist history, metaphors.

We generally witness art in white-walled situations because those walls provide the ultimate framing device, a Platonic ideal of conceptual space that lets the object hang in a mentally unencumbered zone. The white-walled gallery is empty of conceit — except to the extent that it pushes the conceit of the white-walled gallery being empty of conceit. That blank slate is an illusion of ease, one that requires much effort to keep blank.

There is, foremost, the effort to get the art into that white space: the paperwork, the lighting, the guest list, the empty wine bottles, the installation process itself. The longer the work survives, the further it tours, the more widely it is seen — thus the more detailed is its preparatory documentation.

One marvel of “String Fountain” is that it contains its own context. Its physicality compels attention, no matter the lighting. Its tiny, computer-controlled engine maintains its ideal active state. Its dimensions command the space in which it is appropriately contained. “String Fountain” is not merely a grounded kinetic sculpture. It is a mobile that comes complete with its own optimal artificial weather system.

More on the event at More from Paolo Salvagione at

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1987 Was a Very Good Year for Music

An artifact of artifacts

A friend recently (on Facebook) unearthed my top 10 favorite albums and singles from 1987. With the exception of the Tom Waits, the albums are all things I listen to quite regularly to this day — well, I don’t listen to The Joshua Tree much, but I have a special affection for “Bullet the Blue Sky,” with its epic, filmic quality, and for the version of “Sweetest Thing” that appeared on the B-side of the “Where the Streets Have No Name” 7″ (not the cleaned up, perfected version of “Sweetest Thing” that appeared on U2’s The Best of 1980-1990). The Metallica, Cecil Taylor, and Ray Anderson albums, in particular, are my favorites by those musicians. I still remember plucking the Anderson from the shelf at the college radio station, WYBC, where I had a jazz show, and falling for it immediately.


The singles are very pop, and I have come to realize, in retrospect, that my ear was focused on the music’s mechanical impulses, from the Devo-esque stop’n’start intensity of the They Might Be Giants, to the produced precision of the George Michael and the John Cougar Mellencamp. The Cure is one of the most misunderstood pop groups, often poorly characterized as a synth act. Its “Just Like Heaven” is by far the most live-sounding of the songs on this list, while the rest are quite clearly studio concoctions, in particular the Prince and Celtic Frost.

I’ve had this particular year’s top 10 in mind for awhile. This is in part because compiling a top 10 has become less and less interesting to me as the years have passed, and I look back at past lists wondering how much they were acts of necessity or of habit, rather than expressions of true prioritized interests. I look at the 1987 list and I know it was quite an accurate depiction of what I thought. I started many lists to summarize 2014 and only finished one, which I have yet to publish.

This 1987 list has also been on my mind because I’m especially keen on my sense, back in 1987, that the dense assemblage of M/A/R/R/S’ “Pump Up the Volume” was an invitation for others — for active listeners, as I’ve come to think of them — to join in the production process. The ridiculous bravado of my summary statement of the song is me trying out, I think, some of the rock-criticism writing I reading at the time. I hadn’t yet sorted out how to write like I want to write, and I was, so to speak, trying on other people’s clothes, awkwardly so. I was very sure, though, of what I wanted to listen to, and how I believed that music functioned, how it ticked. This list is reprinted from the February 1988 edition of Nadine, the student music publication where I attended college, Yale.

These are the albums:

  1. Metallica, Garage Days Re-Revisited: The $5.98 E.P.
  2. Cecil Taylor, For Olim
  3. John Zorn, Spillane
  4. Ray Anderson, It Just So Happens
  5. Tim Berne, Fulton Street Maul
  6. U2, The Joshua Tree
  7. Power Tools, Power Tools
  8. Alex Chilton, High Priest
  9. Einstürzende Neubauten, Fünf Auf Der Nach Oben Offenen Richterskala
  10. Tom Waits, Franks Wild Years

And these are the singles:

  1. Roy Orbison and k.d. lang, “Crying”—one of many amazing, current remakes by the dark Elvis, the Elephantman of rock ‘n’ roll.
  2. John Cougar Mellencamp, “Paper in Fire”
  3. George Michael, “Faith”
  4. They Might Be Giants, “Don’t Let’s Start”
  5. Bourgeois Tagg, “I Don’t Mind at All”
  6. Celtic Frost, “I Won’t Dance”
  7. John Cougar Mellencamp, “Cherry Bomb”
  8. Prince, “Sign O’ the Times”
  9. M/A/R/R/S, “Pump Up the Volume”—I never quite got the ‘CD single’ idea til I heard this song. I don’t even know if it’s out in that format yet. But, someday I wanna be able to load every scrumptiously digital instant into my Macintosh, edit the fucker “my way” (in fact I may just use Frankie’s own voice), and add my M/W to their M/A/R/R/S.
  10. The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”
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PR Notice

Dealing with the deluge

My email account is pretty pummeled by music PR, which given that the PR involves lots of opportunities to listen to music for free isn’t really something that I expect much consolation for. Anyhow, the following is, for the record, the current version of the email I reply with, on occasion, the fifth or sixth time I get sent an unsolicited email with a faux-personal introduction, telling me how much they love my blog, and extolling the virtues of this pop-punk band, or that neu-soulful r&b diva, or some country singer with a moving personal story to share:

Hi. It’s really not up my professional alley.

I pretty much focus my writing on “technologically mediated sound” — ambient music, sound art, sound design, sound in the media landscape, experimental classical, hip-hop production, that sorta thing. And I write very little about what would traditionally be considered a “song.”




It’s amazing how many PR agencies use Constant Contact and MailChimp and other services without the permission of recipients. When I have the time, I forward the offending emails to the abuse accounts of the given service.

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(Re)introducing the Email Newsletter

Free albums, current fixations, more — in your inbox

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I regularly sent out an email newsletter. And as the years passed and email became more of a burden and less of a source of wonder, I did it less and less frequently. (And even further back, in 1994, I founded the email magazine of Tower Records, called epulse, which ran for a decade.) But for various reasons I’ve picked up the habit again, and having done a new entry for the last three Tuesdays in a row, I feel fairly confident that I’ll continue doing it henceforth. Maybe not every week, but with some regularity. Much of the material will appear here, or vice versa, but there will be material that is specific to the newsletter, more cursory, off-the-cuff things like lists of current fixations and obsessions (the most recent newsletter, posted yesterday, included “text-to-speech … “always on” listening devices … the not-quite-silences of conference calls … sound effects in comics … sound design of TV shows … getting reacquainted with the sound of rain”). Also unique to the newsletter are occasional contests to get free stuff, such as downloads of new albums as well as books, and who knows what in the future.

Here’s the subscription form:

Or you can sign up at

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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.

Replicant Soundscape: Speaking of listening on repeat, this following track has been online since August, but I only just learned of it via an 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.

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:

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.

This first appeared in the December 2, 2014, edition of the free Disquiet email newsletter:

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