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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Writing About Writing About Music

Thoughts related to the new 33 1/3 guide

The single person I most wish I’d had a chance to interview but didn’t is the late Dennis Potter, best known for his work on Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. His use of music in his screenplays really registered with me, about the way music shapes people’s emotions, their interactions, their sense of the world, about how music works in people’s minds, how it becomes part of their thought processes. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t interview him when he was alive, because I would have mucked it up. I wasn’t ready.

20150217-howtoThat statement is the answer to an inquiry I received from the editors of a new book about writing about music. The book is titled How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers. It’s co-edited by Ally-Jane Grossan of 33 1/3, which published my book about Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and by Marc Woodworth, a lecturer in the English department at Skidmore College and associate editor at Salmagundi Magazine.

My comments about Dennis Potter, and other subjects, appear in their book. The two other questions to which my answers appear in the book involve “the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your career” and whether you can drink while reviewing a concert.

I thought I’d share some of the other things I wrote in response to Grossan and Woodworth’s inquiry, all on the subject of writing about music:

Q: Describe in detail the process of writing your most recent piece (whether profile, review, etc.). Do you have a specific workflow for your music writing?

A: I interviewed a musician. The editor at a publication for which I write on occasion emailed me with the pitch — well, reverse pitch — saying he guessed I’d find this musician’s work of interest, and the editor was right. The interviewee was someone I’d long intended to speak with, and I had just never got around to it. I re-listened to all his music, and took notes on key tracks, not just the recent releases, but early material that had really resonated with me. I read up on recent interviews, and spent time observing the musician’s various social networks. The conversation, a phone call, went very well. I quickly and cursorily transcribed the whole thing and found the pertinent material, stuff that I thought would be most of interest. Those sections I went back and transcribed in detail, trying to capture the nuances of his speech patterns. While doing this, I formulated an opening and closing to the article, and from there I pieced together an outline, a structure. Then I connected the portions, threading in the interview segments, and then I reworked the text for several successive drafts so that the whole thing read smoothly. This article had to be turned around very quickly, because it was a late-in-the-game assignment, and it was timed to coincide with a preview of an upcoming local concert performance. One thing I kept in mind was that the publication was a general-interest one, so I made sure that the opening was not too insidery, and that there were easy ways for the reader to extrapolate ideas and experiences from what was covered, even if the subject was unfamiliar to them. That’s pretty much how I handle all my freelance writing — if it isn’t interview-based, then replace the interview part with research. If I’d had more time I would have done secondary interviews, with the musician’s associates. Also, I do a lot of writing on my own website, which I’ve had since 1996, and that writing is a little less structured. The pieces are generally written more linearly, with less immediate concern for structure.

Q: Do you need to know how to make music to write about it?

A: Certainly not. It doesn’t hurt, and there’s lots of great writing about music by people who make it, but there’s also lots of writing about music by people who make it that, well, isn’t so engaging or informative. That said, ignorance is not a useful perspective. If you don’t know how to make music, you still have to have something to say.

Q: If there was one thing you could change (besides the money thing) about music writing, what would it be?

A: This response may not be useful, but it’s the best I could do: I’m not clear that there is a specific thing called “music writing” that one could change. To the extent that I understand what we mean by “music writing,” I guess the main thing I’d suggest is people write outside of what is considered “music writing.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with “music writing” but there’s a big world out there, much larger than “music writing.”

Q: Once you are assigned an interview subject, how do you go about formulating questions to ask them?

A: Fortunately, it usually works the other way around for me. There’s a musician I’m interested in, and questions already exist that I want to ask them. No matter the subject, I’m cautious about asking questions they’ve been asked before, and I read up on recent interviews. If I need to cover well-trodden ground, I acknowledge that, and rather than re-ask a previously asked question, I’ll bring up the previous answer and make a question of that — for example, “When you said [X] in 2003, what did you mean by [some specific detail]?” I pretty much never ask anything personal, unless it relates directly to the musicians’ work, and even then it’s not really my beat, as it were. The whole cult of personality, the gossip, the intrigue of feuds and dalliances — that holds no interest for me. I think my disinterest has served me well in having musicians open up to me about their creative endeavors. I probably over-prepare when interviewing musicians. Questions aren’t difficult for me, because I’m always full of questions. You know how little kids as lots of questions? I never outgrew that. The hard part is formulating the questions so they’re easily communicated, and sequencing them so the conversation flows well.

Q: How would you suggest that a young writer meet and contact editors or industry figures?

A: If you can’t reach them, find someone else to talk to. Life’s short. No one is that important. Just write, and publish your own stuff if you have to. If you have something to say, people will find you.

Q: Describe your first successful pitch in the music writing world. What about it got you the gig, do you think?

A: I wanted to work for two magazines in particular when I got out of college: Pulse!, the magazine published by Tower Records, and Down Beat. I eventually wrote for both, and got a job at the former. I pitched a bunch of stuff to Tower Pulse!, but I think the first thing I wrote for them, in 1989, was something they pitched to me, an interview with the African-American funk-metal group named 24-7 Spyz, who were based in New York, which is where I lived. It was either 24-7 Spyz or a Souled American interview that was the first thing I wrote for Pulse! I wrote both those pieces in quick succession. I guess the first successful pitch I had, where the subject originated from me, was Hank Roberts, the electronically mediated cellist, who was a Knitting Factory regular. The pitch’s acceptance probably hinged on two things: I made a clear case for why he was important, and I balanced that with how his music was accessible.

Q: How has the field of writing about music changed since you became a music writer? Is it better or worse? What opportunities have disappeared? What opportunities are brand new?

A: For context, I wrote my first paid freelance article in either 1988 or 1989, and I was writing about music for the high school newspaper by 1981 or 1982, and wrote continuously about music in a college publication, from 1985 through 1988. There are, these days, fewer steady gigs at print publications, and fewer music-critic roles at newspaper organizations, but there are tons of online outlets, not just in the media, per se, but at organizations like orchestras, and music venues, and cultural institutions, and non-profits, and record labels — everything and everyone is potentially a “magazine” these days. One of the most knowledgeable music publications in the United States is the weekly newsletter of a record store in San Francisco called Aquarius. The pay these days is worse on average, not even adjusted for inflation, but there are far more places to publish. Thanks to things like WordPress and Tumblr and Quora, there are far more voices, which is wonderful, and the rise of comments has brought non-professional, but often quite informed, perspectives into the conversation. Music that was once under-represented, like hip-hop and contemporary classical, has come to dominate parts of the communal dialogue. Tools like Twitter, Facebook, and SoundCloud have probably done more to break down the wall between audience and performer than punk rock accomplished.

Q: What personal qualities do you posses that have kept you employed as a music writer? What qualities do you wish you had?

A: I guess the main thing is I’ve developed a point of view, maybe a reputation of some sorts for a point of view — that and a focus, an area or set of related areas in which I have some particular knowledge. That’s an interesting question about a quality I wish I had. There’s lots of stuff I’m working on doing better, but there’s no one thing in particular.

Q: Do you have a fulltime music writing job? How did you get it? Please describe some of your daily tasks.

A: No. I have in the past, but I don’t any longer. I applied to a music magazine when I got out of college, and then wrote freelance for them. I got to be a known entity to them, and when a position opened up they offered it to me. I was an editor there for seven years, and I edited everything from the letters page to columns to cover stories to comic strips. After I left I wrote freelance for them, including a column.

Q: Do you use different methods and tactics for writing a short form piece (review, sidebar) versus a long form piece (profile, longer cultural piece)?

A: Different forms require different approaches, certainly, but beyond that the assigning publication’s own sensibility and audience shapes the work.

Q: Aside from other music writing, where else do you find inspiration for your work?

A: Inspiration comes from lots of places — novelists, cookbooks, political writing, arts writing, writing by musicians. If you’re a brain surgeon, it may be best if you dedicate your study time to brain surgery. If you write about music, a broader range of reading and other input is highly recommended.

Q: Let’s play Desert Island Discs! If you were stranded on a desert island for 1 year (assuming you have food and shelter) and could only bring 3 songs, 2 objects, and 1 novel, what would they be?

A: I worked for seven years, and wrote for 15, for a magazine that featured Desert Island Discs every issue — Pulse! magazine, published by Tower Records. I’d bring Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon, which I guess counts as one song, since the album has just one track. I’d bring Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, for cello. I have so many versions of Bach’s solo cello suites that it’s hard to say which specific recording I’d bring, but I’d hope for one slightly slower than average. And I’d bring “Shhh / Peaceful” by Miles Davis. That’s the first half of his album In a Silent Way. Two objects? I’d bring a laptop and a solar charger. Just one novel? That’s very tough. I’d probably bring Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I promise if you ask me this question in a month I’ll have different answers, though the Brian Eno record would probably still be on there.

Q: Did you ever have a writing mentor? How did you find this person, and how did your relationship change/develop over time?

A: My mentors, to the extent I’ve had them, have been writers I’ve employed to write articles, writers far more advanced than myself. As an editor, I’ve had the opportunity to hire freelance writers whose work inspired me, among them Edith Eisler, Michael Jarrett, Linda Kohanov, Art Lange, Joseph Lanza, and Robert Levine. I learned by having long-running conversations with them. By editing their work I learned something about how it functioned, how they accomplished what they set out to do.

Q: What song title best describes your music writing career?

A: “In a Silent Way” (by Miles Davis).

Q: If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself at the beginning of your career, what would you say?

A: Stop trying to be interested in things other people are listening to that you don’t find interesting, and start paying more attention to what you do find interesting.

Q: Has an unexpected or out-of-the-box professional opportunity arisen from your work (ie: being in a documentary)? If so, what was it and how did it come about?

A: Lots of stuff. I’ve done a lot of public speaking to schools and organizations. I teach a course about sound at an art school. I’ve done music supervision for a documentary. Lots of stuff. Most of this was the result of someone appreciating something I did and then contacting me. In some cases, a conversation with another professional led to a collaboration, though that wasn’t the intention for the conversation.

Q: What’s the most unique angle for a music writing piece you’ve had? How did you arrive at it?

A: A lot of “angle” writing comes across as gimmick to me. Sometimes the result is that the subject of, say, a profile responds well, but that’s arguably not because the angle itself was of interest, but because the subject was just glad to have someone do something different for once, rather than ask variations on “the influence question.” One thing I’m proud of as an editor is “conversation” interviews I’ve arranged, like having Randy Weston and La Monte Young meet in person to talk about playing the blues. I suppose that was a sort of angle, since neither of them was in each other’s immediate cultural orbit, and they definitely enjoyed the experience, and I think readers did, too. I’d say the best “angle” work I’ve done is as an editor: assigning the right person to do a story, often someone who is not a professional music critic, like getting Richard Kadrey, then best known as a cyberpunk novelist, to interview the band Ministry, or getting Geoff Nicholson, also a novelist, to interview a band we’d determined to put on the cover but whom I had no passion for, Bush. In the latter case, I saw it as a commercial situation — it made sense to put the band on the cover — and Nicholson had just written a book that took place in a British department store, so he seemed appropriate for the task. I also assigned for a full decade a wide variety of comics about music, and the exploration of music through visuals was a tremendous learning experience for me. I guess that format counts as an “angle,” too.

There were, in addition, some questions I wasn’t sure I had productive responses to, among them: What are the 5 things (objects? rules?) every music writer needs? How can a new generation of music writers combat the challenges that music writing currently faces? And: In your opinion, what differentiates music writing from other types of writing (straight journalism, literary nonfiction) if anything?

More on the book at 333sound.com/howtowriteaboutmusic.

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A Qualitative Social Network

Stats, functionality, and community maintenance

It’s funny, much as I’ve used SoundCloud daily for all these years now, I’ve never really found use, myself, for the stats. Likely, that’s because almost all my focus is on the Groups functionality. I do post a track occasionally, but not with any particular hopes of a broad listenership, just to participate, to float a musical idea, or to mark a milestone, like the addition of a new module to my little synthesizer rig.

For the Disquiet Junto group each week, all I look at is three things:

(1) where we’re at in active users (not members, but accounts that have actually posted tracks, which just topped 500),

(2) the number of tracks in the most recent project (I don’t even keep track of the numbers, but I do note it mentally — we’ve been as high as 70+ in a week and as low as around 10, and we’re generally around 30 or so), and

(3) the number of total tracks (we’re so close to 4,000 in just over three years).

I tend to be more qualitative than quantitative in general, but, yeah, maybe if there were Groups-oriented stats, that’d help me a bit, but I wouldn’t make it a priority. I look at the Junto qualitatively — are folks commenting on each other’s tracks, and is the commentary constructive; are the projects being met with enthusiasm, not so much in terms of number of participants in a given week but the sense that effort was expended by those who did participate; are there any obvious breakouts, in terms of levels of listenership, that sort of thing.

I think I’m more focused on functionality than on stats. You know what I would love would be the ability to transfer a track. I’d love if someone who’s posted a track but didn’t want it associated with their account any longer could transfer it to me, or to someone else.

Note: I originally posted this in a conversation on Facebook, but figured I’d post it here, too.

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An Arduino Fountain in “Plein Air”

An essay for Autodesk artist-in-residence Paolo Salvagione

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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 creativeapplications.net. The image here is of the letterpress print of the essay, designed by Brian Scott of Boon Design boondesign.com 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.

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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 facebook.com. More from Paolo Salvagione at salvagione.com.

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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.

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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.”

Thanks.

Best,

Marc

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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