February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, 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: sound-art

A San Francisco Soundwalk

Megaphones, parabolic concrete, waterfalls, and much more

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We were confronted on the street corner by an evangelical wielding a large, battery-powered megaphone. This being a soundwalk, the appearance on this very cold day of the screaming man in the t-shirt was something akin to an act of serendipity. As he burdened us with the fear of eternal damnation, all I could think was: “My, what a perfect specimen of the urban soundscape.”

A soundwalk is a docent tour of everyday reality. A docent in a museum walks a group of visitors through the galleries and discusses the art: drawing connections, recounting history, responding to and posing questions. The leader of a soundwalk describes the sounds that are encountered en route — how they function as part of the overall soundscape, what they mean culturally, what their origin is, how they set context and are shaped by context.

The “we” on this cold winter Wednesday in San Francisco was myself along with students (a mix of BAs and MFAs) from the course that I teach on sound at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The course’s subject is the role of sound in the media landscape. It is divided into three sections: how to listen; how objects, services, and organizations employ sound to express themselves (industrial design, jingles, etc.); and how music-related products (bands, stereo equipment, social networks) express themselves in non-sonic ways.

I had mapped out the soundwalk agenda in advance, but the world has a way of intervening, and not just in the form of an angry man hellbent on, well, talking about hell. Which is fine — in fact, interruptions are part of the plan. An itinerary, as they say, is the map, not the territory.

What follows are some key moments along the walk, some planned, some chance:

Simulated Activity: The tour started early on Wednesday morning at the entrance to the Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street, near the corner of Fifth. Inside the mall, if you closed your eyes, you might have thought it was as busy as holiday shopping could get. In fact, the only business with customers was a coffee shop on the basement level, where office workers and mall staff were lined up for post-dawn caffeine. The mall, however, seemed to brim with activity because the house music — that is, the music played on the speakers from the ceilings — was loud, upbeat pop. It was downright noisy, in pop-punk sort of way. The noise provided a simulacrum of activity. Without it, the mall would have felt like an airport at 3am: ghostly, void. The noise was a form of wishful, self-fulfilling prophecy. It set the pace for commerce, and in time consumers would arrive and adhere to that pace.

Score-by-Accrual: While still in the mall, we discussed how the structure had its own score-by-accrual, a score in addition to the “official” music. The majority of the individual stores had their own interior musical playlists, and these sounds leaked out and merged in the atrium and walkways. These individual playlists served as cues to potential shoppers, and as such were distant descendents of the barkers at stalls at the bazaars of yore. They also served, once one was inside a specific shop, to block out the sounds of the rest of the mall. The result is a music arms race.

Horns and Chatter: We walked back out to Market Street and headed east, toward 4th Street. The noises of the street provided a clear contrast to the music of the mall. There was no single overarching sound. There was instead a mid-level cacophony of horns and chatter, street cars and shuffling. Each time, though, that I attempted to suggest this contrast between mall and street to my students, the siren of an emergency vehicle managed to muffle my voice.

Different Kinds of Quiet: When we reached 4th Street, we turned south and immediately experienced just how quiet a simple change in direction could be. The bustle of Market subsided. The mall had presented itself as an interior city, but in fact the rules of the mall city differ from those of the actual city. In particular, stores on the street were not each blaring their own scores. Noise ordinances take care of that, as do the closed doors of cold winter days. Of course, the city doesn’t need music to suggest activity. It simply is active. And when it isn’t active, that quietude is generally welcome — unlike in the mall, where it suggests economic downfall.

A Private Silence: On the way down 4th Street we passed the entrance to a building with a large, artfully barren lobby, and discussed how the lobby provided, with its visual and literal quiet, a salve for those who entered. In a city, money buys many things, key among those things a relief from the pressures of the city.

Reel Life: At the corner of 4th and Mission we stopped — briefly, because soon the angry man with the megaphone appeared — to look up at the logos emblazoned on the exterior wall of a newly refurbished shopping mall. The ones high above the adjacent corner emphasized the movie theater situated on the upper floors of the mall. It was noted that these signs announced the presence of an Imax screen, but not of the sound systems. The heralding of high-quality sound comes and goes just as hemlines rise and fall. There are periods when THX and Dolby logos are everywhere. This is, at least in downtown San Francisco, not one of those times, even though this theater features screens with Dolby Atmos, which is barely a year old. Even on the website of the theater, the Atmos brand is subsumed as part of the ETX (“enhanced theatre experience”) brand.

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Holy Noise: We paused in front of the lovely St. Patrick Church, whose congregation dates back to the mid-1800s, and talked about the role that church bells play in a city, about the unique nature of that accommodation. It is difficult to imagine a new kind of business or organization appearing in a city and being allowed to make such a regular contribution to — or intrusion in, depending on your point of view — the city’s soundscape. And yet around the city, around the world, church bells ring out repeatedly, marking not just the hour, but regular times of prayer. (Photo of St. Patrick Church by Andrew Crump.)

Water Wall: Mission Street is fairly narrow between St. Patrick and the Yerba Buena Gardens, divided by a midsection, and the park area feels quite remote from the city. Part of that sense of ease in the park is owed to the constant waterfalls of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial that lines the rear of the space. In addition to being lovely, and filling the urban valley with a light mist, it also provides a subtle white noise that blocks out much of the city’s intruding sounds.

Unscheduled Playtime: Among the many chance incidents that informed our walk, a favorite of mine was the oversize poster for the Jacques Tati film Playtime that we saw on the inside wall of a French-themed cafe at one corner of Yerba Buena. Playtime was one of two films I had the students watch as part of their homework this semester, the other being The Conversation (our classroom is just blocks from where the openning of The Conversation was filmed, which makes the surveillance theme all the more eerie). Next semester I may swap out one of those films for Diva.

Ambisonic Planning: We crossed back over Mission Street and made our way up the alley alongside St. Patrick and the Jewish Contemporary Museum. Just two steps from the sidewalk, and the noise of the street, in particular the idling of a delivery van, largely disappeared, the result of trajectory, but also of some sizable concrete structures. I talked a bit about the work of Arup, the architectural and engineering consultancy with offices a few blocks away, and how it employs ambisonic technology to allow architects and urban planners to test in a virtual space how structures will influence sound in real space, how materials, forms, and other variables shape not only the physical but sonic space in which people interact.

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Parabolic Fun: The soundwalk concluded back on the sidewalk on the south side of Market Street. Here an installation by the Exploratorium as part of the city’s Living Innovation Zone program had two oversized concrete hemispheres situated in such a way that anyone sitting in one could converse with the person sitting opposite them. (There is, apparently, also an “singing bench” that involves a completed electric current, but we didn’t see or hear it on this walk.)

And, this being an academic soundwalk, there was homework.

Students are to map three sounds in a two-block radius of the building at the corner of Bush and Kearny that houses our classroom:

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The assignment is: “Pin the spots where those sounds originate. Then write up for each spot a sentence or two in which you (1) describe the sound and (2) note the sound’s meaning, utility, function, or some other aspect.”

If you live in the area and want to upload your own map here, or a map of your neighborhood, that would be excellent.

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Sound of Commerce

John Kannenberg, our man (temporarily) in the U.K.

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John Kannenberg is a sound artist with a particular interest in place. Much of his work is raw or lightly edited recordings of physical environments, notably art museums. He has, in the past, reversed the idea of sound art by making sound art of places that house art. He travels with his audio recording equipment as others might with a camera or a sketch book. What follows is his audio of a shopping mall in the U.K. It is the sound of commerce, of activity and inactivity, of daily life: a barker, passing conversation, thick local accents, even the squeak of shoes against the floor. Framing lends the mundane a sense of drama. Repetition lends structure, narrative.

Track posted for free download at soundcloud.com/johnkannenberg. More from Kannenberg at johnkannenberg.com.

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A Festivus of Sound

After Thanksgiving comes Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night."

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Tomorrow may be one of the more beloved holidays on the United States’ calendar, but a global secular holiday with a moveable dateline and a growing following begins soon after. This is “Unsilent Night,” the brainchild of composer Phil Kline. Each year in cities around the world, people gather with boomboxes and CD players, Bluetooth speakers and makeshift portable audio systems, and they create a lovely collaborative din. Kline’s “Unsilent Night” consists of four complementary (and complimentary — they’re free to download) recordings of sheer sonic tinsel. Individually they are enjoyable to listen to, but the real pleasure comes in hearing them played in near simultaneity on dozens of different audio players as you walk through the city.

When played in public on Unsilent Night, the tracks are delightfully discordant even beyond the intended combination of Kline’s four jigsaw compositions. First of all, no two people start their systems at the exact same time, and the lack of true sync lends the music an echo effect. Second, the playback varies from device to device: well-worn cassette tapes played against high-fidelity CDs, bass-heavy Jamboxes joining in a robot choir with tinny old RadioShack computer speakers. From a distance, it can look like a Say Anything flash mob. Up close, the chiming percussives bring to mind minimalist composer Steve Reich at his most ebullient.

The calendar is being updated at unsilentnight.com/schedule.html. Right now the earliest date is December 6 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Other dates include New York City, where the work originated 21 years ago in Greenwich Village, on December 14; Brussels, Belgium, on December 14; Los Angeles on December 21; and Kansas City, Missouri, on December 8. As of this writing, dates for San Francisco and Montreal, among numerous other cities, are not yet set.

If you bring a boombox to the event, tapes and CDs are usually available, albeit in limited quantities. There are also Android (in the Amazon app store) and iOS apps.

Here’s a video about “Unsilent Night,” filmed to celebrate its 20th anniversary:

More on the composer Phil Kline, who is working on an opera about Nikola Tesla with Jim Jarmusch, at philkline.com. Photo from a San Francisco Unsilent Night shot by Steve Rhodes, via flickr.com.

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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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This Poster Is a Test. It Is Only a Test.

A tribute to San Francisco's Tuesday noon siren — designed by Brian Scott, with contributions from Heimo Schmidt, Nick Sowers, and yours truly

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Every Tuesday at noon in San Francisco, California, a siren rings out, after which a voice provides some modicum of comfort by explaining that the siren was a test, only a test. The siren is part of the city’s Outdoor Public Warning System. Brian Scott of Boon Design decided to treat the siren as a symbol for the city — that is, what R. Murray Schafer would have called a “soundmark,” or the sonic equivalent of a landmark — when he responded recently to a call for posters by AIGA SF, the local branch of the professional association for design. The poster project, titled AIGA InsideOutSF, explains itself as follows: “A curated exhibition and silent auction of original posters by some of the most influential San Francisco Bay Area and international creatives, revealing their personal impressions of San Francisco.”

Brian put together a small crew for his poster, which appears up top. The photography, with purposeful echoes of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s sublime horizons, is by Heimo Schmidt. Additional key reference points include Vija Celmins’ graphite drawings of waves and Michael Snow’s 1967 film Wavelength. The waveform, shown at a 90 degree angle from its usual horizontal mode, cascades down the center of the image. The waveform is portrayed as a series of crosses intended to connect the wave to the idea of a map — to align the waveform with 113 sirens distributed around San Francisco (see the map below). This waveform visualization was accomplished by Nick Sowers. As for my role, I weighed in with ideas, writing, and editing. The text on the poster shows the announcement in the three languages it is heard in: primarily English, but also Cantonese and Spanish. The layering is intended to get at the distortion inherent in many of the city’s speakers, and at the overlaying and echo effect of adjacent speakers.

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And because the web image of the finished poster doesn’t do justice to the impact of Brian’s art, here is a detail:

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More from Brian Scott and Boon Design at boondesign.com. More from Heimo Schmidt at heimophotography.com. More from Nick Sowers at soundscrapers.com.

Our siren poster, by the the way, isn’t the only sonic symbol of San Francisco to be drawn from in the AIGA project. Nor is it even the only one to emphasize a public address system. Below is the wonderful poster submitted to AIGA by Jeremy Matthews and Brett Wickens of the San Francisco–based Ammunition Group. It shows the bullhorn of famed local activist and politician Harvey Milk.

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More on the AIGA InsideOutSF poster project at insideoutsf.org. The InsideOut SF Fall Gala, to be held on November 12, 2013, will raise funds for the AIGA (“towards scholarships, educational programming and community events” per the documentation) in an auction of the posters.

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