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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Naming a Disquiet.com Podcast

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And Disquiet.com Turns 20 Years Old

Looking back on two decades of self-publishing

Twenty years ago today I purchased the URL Disquiet.com. Twenty years. Twenty. I’ve seen this anniversary coming for some time, and pondered things, big and small, to note it. For today, the plan is simply to look back. Some bigger plans are in the works, but for now I want to briefly reflect.

There’s some small irony — a kind of archival verisimilitude — to the fact that the anniversary occurs a few days into my semi-annual social media pause. I’m off Twitter and Facebook until January 5, which will mark the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Disquiet Junto, the weekly music-composition prompt series that I moderate. The Disquiet.com site launched, back on December 13, 1996, long before our current age of pervasive social media — several years, in fact, before the word “blog” (from “weblog”) came to describe, retroactively, what I and many others had been up to in those initial, heady post-Netscape years, the first broad taste of an Internet with a browser for a front door.

I won’t be noting the anniversary today on Twitter and Facebook, which is for the best, because it suggests a semblance of the period in which Disquiet.com was first launched, a period that felt rambunctious in its own way, the dawn of the consumer Internet — and like all revolutions, that seems quaint, somehow, when contrasted with the rambunctiousness of our current day. A period that was, in retrospect, quite quiet, quite sheltered, quite remote, largely free from the instant feedback and parallel, asynchronous-yet-insistent conversations that dominate our attention today.

When I bought the URL, I’d only recently moved to San Francisco from Sacramento. I was maybe a month into my first apartment in the city’s Richmond District. I live in the Richmond District today, though from 1999 to 2003 there was a spell in New Orleans, Louisiana. Shortly after arriving in New Orleans I had reason to call the office of one of the two senators that Louisiana has in Washington, D.C. The receptionist registered my message, and then asked where I was from — not where I lived, but where I was from. And I responded, without thinking, “Uptown,” which in New Orleans is both a neighborhood and an act of micro-regional identity. She replied, just as quickly, “You really are from New Orleans” — which is to say, not from Louisiana, but from a city that, as far as it might be concerned, just happens to be in Louisiana, much as it just happens to be in the United States.

Perhaps I go native quickly. I went native in San Francisco, and thanks in part to Disquiet.com, I went native online. The term “digital native” is often reserved for folks a decade or two younger than me, folks who grew up in an already digital world. Though I predate them by a generation, I like to think my early activity gets me grandfathered in, so to speak.

When I moved to San Francisco toward the end of 1996, I had just left Pulse!, the music magazine published by Tower Records. I joined Pulse! in 1989, a year out of college. I did many things at Pulse!, including introducing comics to their pages, and co-founding the classical magazine Classical Pulse!, with my friend Bob Levine (Robert Levine if you’re reading one of his pieces of music criticism), and founding in 1994 the email newsletter, epulse, which continued publication for a decade, right up until Tower’s completed bankruptcy finally ended its run. I learned an enormous amount at Pulse!, and glimpses of its legacy still pop out once in awhile. Just last week I received the great thinker Michael Jarrett’s new book, Pressed for All Time (The University of North Carolina Press), which is an album-by-album study of the production of classic jazz recordings, and which originated as an article in the magazine.

After seven years at Pulse! I moved from Sacramento, where Tower was founded and based (well, based in West Sacramento), to San Francisco to join what at the time was called a dotcom, and today is called a startup. My sense of identity was shifting. I was the editor-in-chief of a local website, and while music was part of its purview, I had no time to be its actual music editor. Launching Disquiet.com provided a means to maintain a specific space for my music thinking. When I’d joined Pulse! the main thing that attracted me was that the magazine covered all sorts of music — not just rock, pop, r&b, and hip-hop, not even just jazz and classical, but Christian contemporary, and world music, and new age, and film scores, and musicals. We had columnists assigned to each of those genres, and more — and we had local reporters in a dozen or more cities providing glimpses into local scenes.

When I left Pulse! it was partially because, after seven years of aspiring to as wide a set of ears as I could, I’d come to recognize that I was interested in technologically mediated sound. I might interview a country singer, but what I wanted to ask her about was what it meant that she also sang all the background vocals in a song’s chorus. I might interview a classical composer, but it was in part to find out what it felt like to be sampled. I might interview a jazz musician, but it was largely to explore the tension between live improvisation and the amber confinement of a completed commercial recording.

And so I launched Disquiet.com in that aesthetic-philosophical juncture — at the intersection of sound, art, and technology. At first the site was simply a place to post old articles. Occasionally I’d receive emails from people asking when I’d post something next, and my reply was along the lines of, “Well, as soon as someone assigns me an article for a magazine and then enough time passes for me to post it online.” And then it occurred to me to write something simply to appear online, something digitally native, and I proceeded to. And then some time around 1999 — I’m purposefully writing this without using any reference material, just from memory, because it’s about memory — a friend, the great illustrator Jorge Colombo, suggested I add date-stamps to my articles. I wasn’t using a content management system, you see. I was updating Disquiet.com entirely by hand, including the index page. In fact, up until 2007, I was even coding the RSS feed by hand. In 2007 someone — a coder in Pittsburgh named Nathan Swartz — helped me port my hand-coded HTML into WordPress, and then a few years later a friend, Max La Rivière-Hedrick of Futureprüf, helped me get that WordPress theme into “responsive” mode, which is to say it automatically adjusts to phone, tablet, and computer dimensions.

The biggest change in 2007, though, was the addition of images. I was very straightedge about my music criticism. I virtually never asked subjects about their personal lives, just about the music. On Disquiet.com, I almost never posted images, except for the occasional album cover. Then as now I had a singular focus: listening closely in order to explore how things functioned, not how they were made, not how they were composed — how they functioned. But in 2007, the same year I joined Twitter, one thing did change: I broke free of the text-first approach, posting images from trips — the first being one to Japan — that represented sound, or that fleshed out ideas explored in my writings or interviews.

At the time the images and WordPress implementation felt like big changes, but in retrospect the biggest change had occurred the year prior, when in 2006 I had invited a bunch of musicians to contribute to a freely downloadable compilation album titled Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet. Brian Eno and David Byrne had just made stems from their album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts available for remixing and I invited musicians to have their way at them. What followed over the years was a series of such compilations, musicians responding to a musical prompt I’d develop. The projects were tightly controlled, maybe a dozen participants. In 2011 I challenged myself to open the project planning wider, and ended up with 25 musicians contributing to Insta/gr/ambient, a compilation in which each of them took one another’s Instagram photos and imagined them to be the cover of their next single — and then went on to record the single.

Insta/gr/ambient garnered a lot of coverage, but for better or worse I focused on what I perceived as negative commentary, in particular a suggestion that we’d simply benefited from Instagram’s own growing popularity. I disagreed, and felt that what really fed the project was the musicians’ mutual consideration of other musicians as their intended audience, combined with the energy of such an expanded number of participants toiling on the project at the same time, aiding and abetting each other on social media, not just with Instagram photos of their activity, but with comments on Twitter and Facebook.

And so, to test my communal music-making theory, I created the Disquiet Junto on the first Thursday of January 2012. I sent out a simple prompt — record the sound of ice in a glass and make something of it — not knowing if anyone was even going to come to the party. We had fifty or sixty participants, as memory serves, and it’s been going weekly ever since. This coming Thursday’s project (the 259th) will involve a collection of horror stories that invoke sound. In two weeks we’ll do a year-end wrap-up, and on January 5, 2017, we’ll celebrate the anniversary by returning, as we do each year, to the ice project that started it all. As of today there are 1,100-plus members of the Disquiet Junto email list.

There are as many subscribers, more or less, to the Disquiet.com email list, which I don’t send out as often as I’d like, or as often as I once did, but I do love when I have time for it. I try to write at Disquiet.com every day, and plan to continue to. I often quiet down toward the end of the year, making plans for the one to come. Another year lies ahead, a year of more daily recommendations of online listening, of interviews with musicians, coders, and artists (three categories that exist in combination far more than they did in 1996), and field notes. If you’ve read this far — by which I mean this article, not for two decades — I just want to say thanks. It’s a central pleasure of my life.

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The Forum as Playlist

Platform agnosticism and Junto life after SoundCloud Groups

This is excerpted from a note I sent out last night to the Disquiet Junto project email list:

From lemons -> lemonade.

From a software company shuttering a service -> a platform-agnostic undertaking.

For longtime Junto participants especially, there’s been an occasional refrain that it’d be nice for the Junto not to be bound to one platform. Many people at SoundCloud have been very supportive of the Junto since the first project, back in January 2012. The end of the Groups functionality could be seen as a need for a quick fix. I’m trying to see it as an opportunity for change — specifically, to a means in which folks who would rather post music to YouTube or Archive.org or their own URLs or anywhere can do so, and still be part of the overall community. This process will not necessarily yield something as tidy as a SoundCloud playlist, but the tidiness that the SoundCloud playlist provided was also a reflection of how bonded the Junto was to SoundCloud. Anyhow, the discussions at llllllll.co, which is closely associated with the development of the Monome grid interface, has been very supportive of the Junto for several months, and I’m hopeful that this week’s Junto experiment in forum-as-playlist will work out well.

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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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